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  Movie Reviews  

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

The third (and likely final) installment of the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy, The Hidden World, continues a trend that started with the previous film: muting adult-friendly content in favor of material with a greater appeal to kids. Although the How to Train Your Dragon series hasn't been reduced to the harebrained level of a big-screen children's cartoon, the latest chapter is the least sophisticated of the movies, emphasizing slapstick humor, one-dimensional characterization, and obvious messages. While there is an effective emotional component to the resolution, it pales in comparison with that of Toy Story 3, which offers the same idea with greater delicacy and pathos.

As The Hidden World opens, the young Viking chieftain (and protagonist of How to Train Your Dragon and How to Train Your Dragon 2) Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is leading a raid on the seafaring ships of dragon catchers - men who capture the beasts for economic gain. After freeing a group of imprisoned creatures, the heroes return home to a village that has become overcrowded by men and monsters. Hiccup, seeking a solution to the overpopulation problem, investigates hints found in notes left behind by his father that indicate the existence of a "hidden world" inhabited by dragons. The need to find a refuge becomes paramount when the dragon catchers hire the nefarious Grimmel the Dragon Killer (F. Murray Abraham) to kidnap Toothless, Hiccup's black Night Fury. Grimmel is more interested in killing Toothless than making him a captive but agrees to the terms and uses a newly-discovered female white Night Fury as bait.

The Hidden World focuses on Hiccup's continuing coming-of-age story as he evolves beyond thinking of himself as being defined by his dragon. Helping him through this crisis of confidence are his girlfriend and potential future wife, Astrid (America Ferrera), and his mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett). He also learns that part of growing up is learning to let go and, to put that lesson to the test, he has to give Toothless his freedom so the dragon can pursue his own destiny (which might include making little Night Furies with the white female). All of this happens against the backdrop of Grimmel's bloodthirsty quest to eliminate all creatures that aren't like him. (There's a strong conversation/diversity theme to this aspect.)

Although many of the movie's messages are positive, writer/director Dean DeBlois opts to present them in a blunt manner that often includes characters spelling them out. ("He doesn't believe in himself without his dragon. Help him out with that.") It's as if he doesn't trust his audience to "get" things without having them verbalized - an underestimation of many children, who are intuitive and can pick up on subtle cues.

The film's tone, especially in the early-going, is openly comedic with many of the secondary characters presented as moronic buffoons and most of the humor being geared toward the under-10 crowd. The previous How to Train Your Dragons contained comedic elements but they were better balanced with the more serious, character-based elements. Meanwhile, Grimmel is disappointingly one-dimensional. No attempt is made to give him a credible motivation or make him interesting on any level. He is a generic bad guy. (His reason for genocide: Because it makes him feel good.)

The voicework reunites most of the actors from the earlier productions. Jay Baruchel is back as Hiccup, although he seems a little more whiny than before. America Ferrera gives voice and personality to Hiccup's blond, sassy future mate. Cate Blanchett is Hiccup's warrior mother, Valka, and Gerard Butler plays her dead husband in flashbacks. Other familiar names in minor roles include Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mitz-Plasse, and Kristen Wiig.

Visually, the movie is on par with its predecessors (and perhaps a little better than How to Train Your Dragon 2). The characters have the same vaguely cartoonish appearance and the dragons are often of the "cuddly ugly" variety (as opposed to being scary). The scenic elements impress. The village is a riot of garish colors, mismatched styles, and pleasing chaos. The end-of-the-world whirl of water is dizzying. And the electric, blacklight fluorescence of the Hidden World is as awe-inspiring as anything recently found in any animated endeavor.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is the weakest chapter of the three motion picture adaptations of Cressida Cowell's series and, despite the strong animation, there's a sense that the story has run out of steam. Although children may enjoy this one as much as the others (the lighter tone, in fact, may make it the favorite), adults are likely to find it less absorbing. The time has come to let the dragon training end.

© 2019 James Berardinelli

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