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February 25, 2019

The Hidden World Falls Short of a Happy Landing


The dragons remain cute as ever three movies into the series, but the final movie of the trilogy falls short of expectations.

Courtesy of Dreamworks Animation

When we were introduced to Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his friends in the island of Berk back in 2010, we were enchanted by John Powell’s musical score, amused by Hiccup’s klutzy yet determined attitude, and enamored by Toothless’s childlike wonder. The young son of dragon-slaying chief Stoick (Gerard Butler), Hiccup manages to get the Vikings to coexist with their reptilian neighbors in peace. Amid Hiccup’s awkwardness and relatability, he also suffers from the divide between his passion for caring for dragons and Berk’s stubborn insistence on slaughtering them. Eventually he grows up to become a brave warrior, willing to defy his father’s orders and lose a leg in order to protect his friends and family—an admirable buildup of the stakes and characters of the film and a look into the producers’ unflinching attitude toward darker cinematic themes of tragedy, loss, and isolation. 

The sequel, How to Train Your Dragon 2, furthered this dark thematic sequence with a bittersweet reunion between Stoick and Hiccup’s mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett) that is cut short by Stoick’s violent death. From here on out, the role of chief is shoved into Hiccup’s life, leaving him little time to adjust to its immense responsibility. 

The Hidden World, the conclusion to the How to Train Your Dragontrilogy, begins with Hiccup’s ambitious endeavors as the new chief of Berk, as he sets out with a naive dream of freeing dragons from greedy dragon-killers and enslavers. With the charisma befitting of a leader, Hiccup confidently rescues a herd of dragons on their way to being abused and brainwashed by Night Fury killer Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), notorious for hunting Night Furies like Toothless to near-extinction. However, Hiccup’s wish to host all the rescued dragons in Berk proves a troubling issue, as noted by mentor Gobber (Craig Ferguson): The utopian island is overcrowded, and Hiccup doesn’t realize that he alone can’t save all dragons. Yet, he is relentless, throwing out a ridiculous desire to relocate Berk to the dragon Hidden World, where he believes that the people of Berk and every species of dragon can live till the end of days while nullifying Grimmel’s mission of slaying dragons for sport.

The story’s premise is a little basic and thin, which is a real damn shame. Toothless finds a female Light Fury and instantly falls for her, Hiccup wants to find a Hidden World of dragons, Grimmel wants to enslave dragons and bend them to his will or kill them for his own pleasure. With this simplicity came no real climax or devastating conflict: just a progression of time. An especially personal problem with this movie was the Vikings’ indifference to the terror that Grimmel uses to threaten Hiccup’s loyalty to the dragons. Grimmel sends brainwashed dragons into Hiccup’s house, where they vomit corrosive acid and burn down nearby homes. There is no sign of fear or anguish from the loss of what seven generations had fostered, and absolutely no apparent attachment to this home, as they fly out to find the Hidden World without batting an eye. Overall, it was a little too easy for the protagonists to beat Grimmel—a mere lack of stakes damaged a large part of the narrative.

Nevertheless, the film did have some heartfelt and funny moments. Without spoiling major details, I can assure you that the hilarious mating-ritual that Toothless attempts to seduce the Light Fury with is just as promising as it appeared in the trailer—almost reminiscent of a David Attenborough documentary of exotic bird dances. He hops, falls, swims, and purrs desperately to impress the Light Fury, while her facial expressions grow more and more freaked by the passing second. Toothless finds a side of himself he has never known by flying with the Light Fury across a stormy sky, their wings barely brushing together. The art of letting go is painful to deal with, and Hiccup struggles with friendship jealousy as Toothless pursues a sweet romance and spends less time with him—something people might experience in real life as a friend enters a romantic relationship. Hiccup’s friend Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) endearingly nicknames him “Hickey” while offering him dating advice—an innuendo that adult audience members can laugh over.

As a moviegoer who loves character-driven stories, I feel like The Hidden World failed to improve upon the characters who had been so well thought out in the first two movies. The side characters do not feel as fleshed out, falling flat in their development as likeable protagonists or believable antagonists. Hiccup’s girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) jokes about the pressure of a future marriage with Hiccup, advising that it’s better if they wait it off…until she randomly switches her mind halfway for no given reason. (However, her chemistry with Hiccup is adorable, with their playful banter and combat and her optimism when he feels helpless.) Valka, a guiding mentor and dragon expert in the second movie, is reduced to a villager who keeps watch for potential intruders, and nothing more. Twins Tuffnut and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) are a comically annoying duo, but their minor character arcs fail to advance their personalities. And most disturbingly, young Snotlout (Jonah Hill), who cannot be any older than Hiccup, has the hots for Hiccup’s mother—a move made to be amusing, but conversely resonated with me as a creepy obsession. 

Most significantly, the antagonist Grimmel is all talk and no show. Certainly, it is asserted that Grimmel is a strategic, nearly unbeatable champion of dragon slaying, but the narrative fails to explain why he despises Toothless so much, why he doesn’t take chance after chance to kill dragons as he promised he would, or why he even returned to dragon slaying after years of so-called hiatus. Grimmel seems thrust into this movie for the sake of being a bad guy, and nothing more: The execution of this alleged threat to all dragons was too simple and rushed to be appreciated.

That being said, the design of each scene was astonishingly impressive, bursting with the bright colors of the old Berk and the neon lights of the Hidden World flashing across the scales of the dragons. The concept of the female Light Fury (although anime fans have joked that she is the embodiment of the Yu-Gi-Oh! Blue Eyes White Dragon) was creative—her ears, with softer edges than Toothless’s; her lack of prominent spikes on her back; her elegant wings. John Powell’s newest musical renditions of “Test Drive,” “Forbidden Friendship,” and “This Is Berk” fittingly dramatize each scene as they are played. But eye candy isn’t enough to compensate for a storyline lacking a stellar execution of deeper themes that can resonate with the audience. Although not necessarily a terrible movie, there are far better masterpieces that DreamWorks has conjured up than this mediocre farewell to a decade-old series.

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