The latest installment of the very-popular How To Train Your Dragon series of films has landed, and it’s an adorable adventure in its world of flying reptiles (and… bug-reptile hybrids?) and Viking friends. It is also a film which struggles to stand out in a franchise with so many frequent-flyer miles.
It is no secret that this audience-and-critic-beloved franchise is a hit, and nearly any sequel is likely to perform well. I have no doubt it will be a box-office success and appreciated thoroughly — as it should be. As it is supposedly the final installment, there are not likely to be additional iterations, but one cannot help but wonder if good enough financial performance will tempt Dreamworks into further dips into the dragon’s swimming hole. The important consideration for the creators at this point is to quit while you’re ahead. That’s a very, very hard thing for anyone in media to do, it seems, which gives me pause.
The story in The Hidden World is mostly based on the introduction of a female, Light Fury, love interest for Toothless — our protagonist Night Fury breed of dragon. Matters of the heart quickly overlap with concepts of free will and growing up/apart from one’s youthful moorings, and so on. There are some hints of themes on gender equity, and a well-intentioned message of dragons in the real world being dormant and absent because humanity has yet to learn to be worthy — a bit of an environment and human behavior nudge.
The emotional notes are sound, the action is fun and engaging, the design and visuals are off the hook — and sure to benefit those who choose to see the 3D version. The sound design is quite good, with likely remarkable use of newer tech like Dolby Atmos. Familiar overtures and new beats of the John Powell score are present in the soundtrack, and the voice cast is still as spot-on as ever, joined in this installment by F. Murray Abraham as the film’s big bad: Grimmel.
Despite a thoroughly evil character design, good voicing, and accompanying goons and bad-dragons as his minions, Grimmel is one of the things that falls a little flat with this film. He’s a fun villain, but he’s not terribly formidable, and not a dark, deep threat in a believable way. He is also involved with other baddies in the cast who should be more helpful than they are or more… anything… with some purpose, but prove to be weak stepping stones to his plot line. It is a symptom we see in the film overall: there are a ton of characters here, it’s getting crowded, and some need to go. Interestingly, that crowded cast echoes a theme of the film, in that the viking island, Berk, is overrun by its people and their pets. It is time to move on, perhaps, and find more room to be.
One striking aspect of the cast is the absence, after voicing Tuffnut in the first two films, of T.J. Miller. Somehow, various powers that be managed to be shocked at T.J. Miller… being T.J. Miller… and he was replaced with Justin Rupple. The difference is not noticeable, though it is really just another actor doing an impression of Miller. Without a lot of major credits to his name, the gig may be a nice feather in Rupple’s cap. Miller’s issues span a range of drunken ego-conflicts to the usual overreach of “me too” controversy. The kids seeing these films, however, don’t (or should not) have exposure to that news, so aside from not having to pay him, it is a little curious why it should have mattered to Dreamworks if he worked the film. (Assuming he had no incidents within the Dreamworks workplace over the years.)
But back to the subject at hand…
The variety of media in the overall franchise of Dragon properties is robust. Most of its other iterations have already come and gone, in fact. This film has a mild struggle with depth and is really one of the last places the tale can go — wrapping up with a slight time jump that will tug the heart-strings of parents for sure. While it is adorable for Toothless to have a girlfriend, and it is a little worrisome for a Night Fury hunter specialist to be after them, and our scaled buddy finds a new power in his repertoire, there is only so far the story can stretch. Luckily, it has stopped short of being contrived, redundant or just plain re-treaded and worn out.
That’s why ending on a nice beat — a high note — is a good move. The credits are filled with art from prior installments, so we can hope the usual greed of Hollywood will let sleeping dragons lie with this chapter. Dreamworks can be proud of what they’ve released, avoid phoning in any cheap spin-offs and move on to another great franchise if they like.
This movie is worth a look, in full audio-visual glory, with the whole family. I give it a solid 3.5/5, and would gladly give it a place among the greatest CGI animated film series of all time.