HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD (Dean DeBlois). 104 minutes. Opens Friday (February 22). See listing. Rating: NNNN
Since the first one appeared in 2010, the How To Train Your Dragon films have offered some of the most beautiful digital animation of this decade. But that’s not all they do.
Writer/director Dean DeBlois – who co-directed the first film with Chris Sanders, and went solo for the sequels – has always underscored the series’ fantasy spectacle with genuine emotional heft and a core of compassion and empathy that sets it apart from most blockbusters. That core comes from Cressida Cowell’s children’s book, but it’s evolved into something deeper and sweeter in the adaptation.
The 2014 sequel expanded on it, further deepening the bond between the young Viking Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his scaly soulmate Toothless. And now How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World brings their story to a lovely, melancholy conclusion.
A year after the events of the last film, the villagers of Berk are forced to abandon their island home when a new menace comes after their dragon friends, forcing our young heroes to grow up fast. Baruchel’s untested Hiccup is forced to assume the mantle of leader while his best bud is increasingly distracted by the appearance of a potential mate.
This final chapter is as beautiful as its predecessors (thanks again to visual consultant Roger Deakins), delivering the requisite action sequences and comedy beats while never losing sight of its tender heart. This is the rare franchise where complex, thrilling battles aren’t as important as the moments where characters simply exist together it’s been like that from the very beginning, and it’s lovely to see that quality maintained.
Almost the entire voice cast returns, even Gerard Butler, who voices Hiccup’s late father, Stoick, in flashbacks. Only T.J. Miller is absent, presumably due to sexual abuse and bullying allegations the actor’s character, Tuffnut, is now voiced by soundalike Justin Rupple. But that gives Kristen Wiig a chance to shine as twin sister Ruffnut, which feels like a good deal.
The new villain, Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham, doing a weird Javier Bardem thing), isn’t especially interesting, but he’s mostly there to spark the central conflict rather than drive it. The real focus is on the bond between Hiccup and Toothless, and what happens to it as their destinies begin to diverge.
And if it’s strange to imagine a blockbuster CG franchise distilling itself down to tiny, pure moments of feeling, you haven’t been paying attention. These movies have always been about connection and empathy, and the wisdom that comes from survival and loss. They only look like cartoons.