- Third time is no charm for this Dragon tale.
It absolutely breaks my Viking-heritaged, geeky, dragon-lovin' heart to have to say this, because I adore the first two How to Train Your Dragon movies, but this third one, The Hidden World? It's not very good.
Which isn't to say that it's very bad, either. In some ways, it's worse than that: It's forgettable. Like, instantly forgettable. (Maybe the hidden world is... too hidden?) I went to write this review after seeing the film once and I was totally stumped, because I could barely remember a thing about it just a few days later. So I went to see it again and just a few days later, it's all a blur of... nothing.
It may be the understatement of my 21-year career in film criticism to say that I'm disappointed that an animated series that has been a glorious exploration of reason over violence, of human partnership with the natural world, and of dragons — oh so many beautiful dragons! — comes to such a flat conclusion.
We've watched Hiccup (the voice of Jay Baruchel) grow from a proudly nerdy boy amongst warriors into a dragon-trainer extraordinaire. Now, in The Hidden World, he is leader of the Viking village of Berk, which, we can plainly see, he has transformed into a realm of human-dragon cooperation and friendship. It's a fun place! There's still a bit of darkness about: The film opens with Hiccup and his friends rescuing captured dragons from cruel hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham). But Hiccup's world is pretty close to being as right as it can be.
There's not much drama in that, and the conflict that returning writer-director Dean DeBlois cooks up feels pretty small, even though it shouldn't. Hiccup decides that he and the people of Berk should embark upon a quest to save dragonkind from Grimmel by finding the legendary dragon sanctuary, that hidden world, for the beasts to conceal themselves in. It's not really clear how Grimmel is the existential threat that the movie makes him out to be, but fine: We're meant to understand that everything that Hiccup has been building and working toward over the previous movies is threatened, for hiding away the dragons means the end of the human-dragon symbiosis that he has fostered.
Yet the stakes feel very low, and Hiccup's odyssey is a bit incoherent and rather slapped together. The actual plot intended to bring about the salvation of dragons is a lot of wheel-spinning, in which his friends goof around and wisecrack in precisely the same ways they've been doing over the past two movies — they have not grown like Hiccup has — and in which Hiccup's, dragon, Toothless, gets himself a girlfriend. But even the unexpected appearance of another Night Fury dragon — Toothless had been presumed to be the last of his breed — leads to little more than some mild comedy as this creature, wild and beautifully all white in contrast to Toothless's jet-blackness, mostly just watches with bemusement his goofy attempts to woo her.
Sadly, not only is The Hidden World not about that hidden world — it barely appears — it's not about much of anything else, either. Sure, Hiccup's world still looks touchably gorgeous — see this in IMAX if you want see it at all — and there's certainly nothing offensive here. The series' themes of nonviolence and careful human stewardship of nature are still here, and Hiccup remains the sort of hero the big screen sees far too few of: He's a great example of nontoxic masculinity. But his final adventure is missing the spark the others had, and it's a desperate absence. I'm very sorry to say that it looks like a good thing that this franchise is finished. ♦