REVIEW: How To Train Your Dragon: the Hidden World Soars Higher Than Ever

How To Train Your Dragon: the Hidden World does what the Godfather, X-Men, Spider-Man, Shrek, and many others could not: it concludes a trilogy on a high note and one that leaves the audience emotionally satisfied.

2019 is the year of endings. Many pop culture institutions will be ending their iconic franchise and audiences will be looking to a new horizon heading into a new decade. The Skywalker Saga will end with Star Wars Episode IX. The epic tale of Westeros will draw to an end on Game of Thrones. The Marvel Cinematic Universe as audiences have known it will end with Avengers: Endgame. Dark Phoenix and New Mutants will close out the almost two-decade-long X-Men franchise for Fox. Sheldon will deliver his last bazinga on The Big Bang Theory (okay I guess there is still Young Sheldon). The first final chapter, though, is Dreamworks’ How To Train Your Dragon: the Hidden World, which wraps up the Dragon franchise which includes two popular films and a television show.

When How To Train Your Dragon first came out in 2010 it came along at an interesting time for Dreamworks Animation. The studio had made a reputation for itself as being the home of overly loud animated films filled with dated pop culture references, a lot of attention focused on A-list voice actors, and all of their characters smirking with a raised eyebrows in the posters. Yet the combined efforts of How To Train Your Dragon and Kung Fu Panda helped give the studio a new image. These were both films with fully rounded characters, a fascinating world that audiences wanted to spend time in, and interesting narratives that paid respect to the genre entries that came before them. They both got sequels that were somehow better, and television spin-offs that were pretty charming. While Kung Fu Panda 3 is a worthy sequel, it doesn’t have the same epic quality the previous two installments had and feels more like an extended episode of the series at times than a proper conclusion.

Would How To Train Your Dragon follow the same path with its third film? After all, the marketing dropped the ‘3’ for the subtitle “the Hidden World” and focused on this new female Dragon and Toothless romance. Could the Dragon franchise truly end on a high note after how well How To Train Your Dragon 2 did at pushing the franchise forward?

Yes. Yes, it can. How To Train Your Dragon: the Hidden World not only delivers a satisfying conclusion, but it also plants the flag that the How To Train Your Dragon films are Dreamworks’ best franchise and truly a great trilogy in its own right. It does what any great trilogy should. Each installment has its own themes, yet when watched together they tell a grander story where each installment enhances the other. It feels like a truly natural sequel to both the first and the second film, building on elements previous established and bringing everything home.

The story picks up a year after the events of How To Train Your Dragon 2, where Hiccup (Jay Barchuel) and his dragon Toothless, along with his team of Dragon Riders, have made their home Berk a human/dragon utopia. While all seems peaceful a new threat is on the horizon in the form of Grimmel (voiced by F. Murray Abraham), a ruthless dragon hunter who has his eyes set on Toothless. Hiccup and his friends decide that their home is no longer safe and take the village on a trip to discover the Hidden World, a fabled place that is the birthplace of all dragons. Along the way, Toothless discovers he is not the last of his kind in the form of a female Night Fury (or a Bright Fury). Hiccup and Toothless are put to the test as they must both take up their mantles as kings of their species and what is the best for their kind. They must save their worlds, but the can they fight for their worlds to co-exist?

Credit must be given to Dean DeBlois, who has written and directed all three films (he co-directed the first film with Lilo and Stitch’s Chris Sanders) for crafting a straight forward fantasy adventure series that could be enjoyed by all ages. He has done a great job crafting a trilogy that has great characters that audiences have seen grow up, surrounded by some of the most creative creature design work for dragons on film. He and his entire team of animators, voice actors, and craftors should be proud.

The animation is, of course, gorgeous to look at. Each one of these films has been a technical marvel upon release, and this film raises the bar. Incredible character animation with such detail to show how these characters have grown up. Some imaginative and creative design work on the dragons that is wholly unique to this property. The fire animation is incredibly realistic, so much so that the movie pretty much starts with Hiccup and Toothless walking through fire in one of the most awesome action hero entrances ever, animated or otherwise. The flying sequences are just as exhilarating as ever (if you can see it in 3D I highly recommend it). While a lot of flying sequence in Dreamworks Animation films have felt like just excuse to show off 3D and create little mini-movie roller coasters, in the Dragon films they always serve a cinematic and character purpose, which is helped when legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins is on hand to help craft the look of the film. The new hook of the Hidden World is a big deal and they truly deliver on creating a bioluminescent marvel of a location that illuminates the screen that will inspire the imagination of generations to come.

While elements like Hidden World and the female Night Fury seemed like filler in the marketing, these elements all weave together so naturally and organically. These new plot elements only enhance the overall theme of the overarching trilogy: growing up and what that means. The discovery of the Hidden Worlds comes as a natural conclusion to where the story has been building. The large amounts of dragons in Berk has lead to overcrowding, and also makes it prime for attack. Hiccup’s actions in the previous two films have now lead to consequences he must deal with in this film, as enemies attack and they realize home is no longer safe. The journey for the Hidden World is just a part of Hiccup’s character journey to becoming a true Viking leader. He must help his people in a time of crisis and show that home isn’t a place, but the people that make it up. This ties back into Toothless meeting the female Night Fury, drawing him away from Hiccup. Toothless being the Alpha Dragon, now means that much like Hiccup he has a duty all his own. These two are both becoming kings, so how does it mean for them each to lead?

This ties into the threat this time around. Grimmel serves as a dark mirror to Hiccup, whose origin story reflects Hiccup’s from the first film and presents what Hiccup might have become. Here he is everything Hiccup is against and puts Hiccup’s leadership to the test. He takes away Hiccup’s home, his sense of safety, and now he is after his dragons, specifically Toothless. Grimmel’s presence in the story is even a direct result at Hiccup’s victory in the second film, as we discover that the previous installment villain was part of a larger group of Dragon Hunters. With his defeat, the others call in Grimmel as a dragon bounty hunter. He has a great presence to him and serves to further challenge Hiccup as a leader, fully transforming him from a boy to a man.

Much like the Harry Potter films, the How To Train Your Dragon movies have grown up with their audience. There was a group of kids who saw the first How To Train Your Dragon when it was released in 2010 that have grown up with Hiccup and Toothless. These films were always a coming of age story and one that matured as the audience grew up. Even the young kids who just saw the films on DVD and are coming into this for the first time, this is a big lesson for a film that is targeted at kids. The themes in The Lego Movie and Toy Story films, while deep, are at their core messages meant for parents to take. But here the message is for kids and is a heavy lesson to impart: with love also comes loss and sometimes loving something or someone means letting them go. This is an extremely deep meaningful lesson for any film, but for one aimed at kids, it is incredibly important.

As the credits rolled, I found myself shedding a tear. Much like Toy Story 3, the realization hits just how much time has passed since the first film hit. How To Train Your Dragon is a franchise that has been running for nine years now. This franchise has been running so long that each installment was done under a different partnership with Dreamworks Animation (the first film was with Paramount, the second film was with 20th Fox, and the third film is under the new ownership of Universal Studios). In those nine years so much has changed both in the real world and in the fictional world of the film. Despite all the grandiose action and adventure, this is and always was Hiccup’s and Toothless’ story. The audience is reminded that this all began with an unlikely friendship that changed the world. It started with them, and fittingly the film ends with a boy and his dragon.

It might be a little too early in the year, and we don’t know what Toy Story 4, Frozen 2 or any of the other animated films have in store for us this year but they will have a hard time topping How To Train Your Dragon: the Hidden World as the Best Animated Film of 2019. There is a good shot this could take home the Academy Award for Animation come next year, like trilogy ending installments Lord of the Rings: Return of the King and Toy Story 3 before it.

How To Train Your Dragon: the Hidden World is a must-see on the big screen, in 3D if you can, because it is both a great animated film, a satisfying conclusion to a trilogy, and a wonderful fantasy adventure for all ages. I’ve always said that How To Train Your Dragon 2 was Dreamworks Animation’s best film, and honestly they may have just topped themselves.