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How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

Let’s start with this: Everything that was awesome about the previous two movies is still great in the third movie.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World still features gob-smackingly beautiful animation and phenomenal visuals (most likely thanks to assistance from grandmaster Roger Deakins). The dragons themselves still look amazing, with a wide variety of detailed and innovative designs all brought to vivid life. The scale is still extraordinarily huge, from the mind-blowingly huge battles to the intricate details tucked away in every corner of Berk. The score from John Powell still kicks all kinds of ass.

Jay Baruchel and his grating voice continue to grow improbably well alongside Hiccup himself. America Ferrara still voices a capable female lead and her character is still a powerhouse. Cate Blanchett and her character are still awesome, and they’ve eased very nicely into a supporting mentor role. Even Gerard Butler makes a welcome return for some exposition-loaded flashback scenes.

In fact, all of the prominent human characters get at least one moment to shine. Which would be great, if most of the supporting characters weren’t still so aggressively godawful. I couldn’t have hated Justin Rupple’s character any more if he was still being voiced by TJ Miller. I’ve never wanted Kristen Wiig to shut up so badly. I would’ve cheered to see Jonah Hill getting drawn and quartered onscreen. At least Christopher Mintz-Plasse’s character was merely wasted and useless. No, I don’t care if these characters were supposed to be funny because they’re annoying — that doesn’t make them funny, it just makes them ANNOYING. AS. FUCK.

But then we have Toothless, who is still every bit as endearing and expressive as he ever was. What makes it even better is that (stepping away from a major flaw of the previous film), his big problems this time can’t be solved by his inherent special-ness as a Night Fury. As the new alpha, Toothless has to figure out how to be a wise and worthy king to all the dragons, just as Hiccup has to learn how to be a competent leader to the people of Berk. That’s not exactly something that can be solved through some new magic power pulled out of thin air like a deus ex machina.

Moreover, the both of them have romance arcs to deal with. Hiccup is under immense social pressure (mostly expressed through Rupple’s character) to finally quit dragging his feet and marry Astrid already. It’s a step neither one of them are eager to take, though maybe they’re both more ready than they want to admit. Moreover, if it’s better for the both of them personally and for the village as a whole, maybe it’s time for the both of them to finally take this decisive and irreversible step toward growing up.

This theme is further manifested in a brilliant way through the village of Berk itself. After two movies and so many years, the village has become an ostensible paradise in which dragons and humans live together… on an island too small to house them all. Plus, by herding all of the dragons into one place, they’ve made an enticing target for any poachers strong enough or cunning enough to launch a raid. The village of Berk has outgrown its home, and so they have to change or die. Thus they set out to find some larger place off the map where humans and dragons can live peacefully and in secret, and the only place that will suffice is the eponymous Hidden World, which is only rumored to exist. And even if they find it, there’s no guarantee that the Hidden World will be so hospitable toward humans.

Getting back to Toothless and his romance arc, the trailers and promos have already gone to great lengths in telling us that Toothless now has a love interest in the Light Fury. There is a bit of “love triangle” drama going on, as the new girl threatens to drive a wedge between Toothless and Hiccup. But mercifully, it’s not really a “bros before hos” kind of situation — Toothless and Hiccup love each other from start to finish, and Hiccup very clearly wants Toothless to be happy with his new crush. No, this is the kind of division that raises the question of how much longer Toothless and Hiccup would be better off together, implicitly raising the question in turn of how much longer humans and dragons can keep on coexisting.

Of course, watching Toothless try and impress a girl, striking out miserably until he finally gains traction, brings something out in Toothless that we’ve never had the chance to see before. And after so many years of connecting with this character, it’s that much more sympathetic to see him trying so hard and eventually succeeding at something he so dearly wants. What makes all of this even better is the knowledge that these two may be the last male and female of their species, and so the stakes of this particular romance are exceedingly high. Hell, she may be the first of his own kind that Toothless has ever seen since he was a hatchling, if that.

And last but not least, the Light Fury is a trap. This isn’t a spoiler, it’s told to us right up front, before she even meets Toothless. She’s been used as bait in countless Night Fury hunts, and that’s how the villains intend to use her now. You can see how that adds another layer of suspense to this particular romance plot.

This brings us to our main villain, voiced by F. Murray Abraham. I’ll admit that I was hesitant about bringing in another human villain, but Grimmel is a huge step up from the previous antagonist in a lot of crucial ways. To start with, he’s not a creature of brute force the way Drago was. Grimmel is the cold and calculating sort, someone who knows how to predict our heroes’ every move, able to manipulate them with sinister ease. Of course, a lot of that comes from how Hiccup and Toothless love each other and their people, raising the classic question of “Is love weakness?” in a way that’s skillfully nuanced. Especially when it’s dovetailed so beautifully with the question of how competent Hiccup could possibly be as a leader, if he’s so predictable and easily tricked.

Additionally, Grimmel isn’t in the practice of capturing dragons. Though he does keep a fleet of especially terrifying dragons that were trained and bred for the specific purpose of killing other dragons. In fact, it turns out that Grimmel is the reason why Night Furies are an endangered species, after singlehandedly hunting down and killing almost all of them.

In a brief scene, Grimmel espouses rhetoric that sounds an awful lot like crap about racial purity, which might have worked a lot better if dragons and humans weren’t totally different species. That said, Grimmel’s philosophy works far more effectively as a callback to the first movie. He’s a potentially fatal reminder of the days when the vikings of Berk hunted down dragons and saw them as an existential threat to humanity. He shows how far Berk has come, while also showing how little progress the rest of the world has made.

It feeds into the idea that maybe this whole human/dragon shared utopia was a beautiful experiment doomed to failure, and maybe dragons will never be safe so long as humans remain so greedy and paranoid. It’s an angle that might have been far more effective if the filmmakers had done a better job of selling it as a problem bigger than Grimmel. The whole thing is undercut by the team of warlords who hire Grimmel to bring all the world’s dragons under their command by capturing the alpha (read: Toothless), every one of whom is an incompetent blithering idiot. Then again, every one of these blithering idiots — along with Grimmel and Drago themselves — had a massive army at their command, so maybe it really is that big of a problem.

To sum up, I had a blast watching How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. It’s a perfectly worthy capstone to a remarkably solid trilogy, with thrills and heartbreak aplenty. While a couple of themes could have been stronger, they don’t even register next to the multi-layered themes so beautifully explored and interwoven in the plot.

Yes, the human supporting characters were insufferably annoying, but the central Hiccup/Toothless relationship provided more than enough genuine laughs to compensate. What’s probably even more impressive, both of our male leads got their own love interests, and both romance arcs only strengthened the central friendship without ever once detracting from it. Last but not least, this movie called back to the previous films in ways that made the whole trilogy feel like a single unified whole, without ever taking away from the movie’s ability to stand on its own.

This one gets a solid recommendation. If the upcoming Universal/Dreamworks partnership turns out to be a crippling disappointment (and looking at their upcoming animation slate, I wouldn’t hold my breath), at least the previous era ended on one spectacular high note.

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