The world of the first How to Train Your Dragon movie was exactly as fleshed-out as it needed to be to tell its simple story of a young Viking who convinced his fellow villagers to befriend dragons rather than destroy them. Subsequent movies have tacked on extra mythology that muddles the elegance of the original’s storytelling, without really deepening the characters or the themes. The first movie’s storyline was already slight enough, and the series’ main asset remains its gorgeously detailed animation, which only goes so far in making up for the dull characters and underwhelming narrative. The third movie, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, aims to tie the series together as a trilogy, but it only highlights how clumsily the story has been expanded and stitched together. The characters’ ultimate goal in this movie accomplishes almost the exact opposite of the first movie’s outcome.
At the beginning, though, newly ascendant Viking chieftain Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is still dealing with the consequences of his previous efforts, as his home village of Berk has become overrun with friendly dragons, who are still living in harmony with the human inhabitants, but have started to become unwieldy to house. Hiccup and his team of dragon riders continue rescuing dragons from trappers, but their way of life is threatened by the ruthless dragon hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), who’s determined to kill Hiccup’s dragon Toothless and capture and enslave all of the dragons at Berk.
To that end, Grimmel lures Toothless with the prospect of a mate, the female version of the Night Fury breed, called a Light Fury. Bright white to Toothless’ pitch black, the Light Fury sparkles in the sun like a Twilight vampire and is wary of humans, allowing returning writer-director Dean DeBlois to repeat a version of Toothless’ arc from the first movie. There’s romance between Toothless and the Light Fury, as well as between Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera), who are being pressured to get married now that Hiccup is Berk’s accepted ruler.
Hiccup remains just as insecure and awkward as before, despite all his victories in the last two movies, and the comic-relief supporting characters stick to their established patterns. As a villain, Grimmel is a bit generic, and not that much different from the power-hungry villain of the second movie. The worst misuse of a character this time around is Hiccup’s long-lost mother Valka (Cate Blanchett), whose discovery drove the plot of the second movie and who here gets a handful of vaguely supportive lines and otherwise fades into the background. There’s no sense of the three-film story building to a climax or culminating in an important emotional journey for the characters. It’s just more dull busy work for the humans and dragons to move past.
At least the animation is still gorgeous. It’s been five years since the last Dragon film, and Hidden World looks like the filmmakers spent every moment of that time working on the incredibly detailed, vivid images, which are even more impressive than the already stellar animation in the previous films. The Light Fury may just be a differently colored version of Toothless (which is the subject of a joke early in the film), but she’s spectacularly rendered down to the individual sparkle. The various other dragons each have their own distinctive design, and a sequence set in the title location, a secret dragon haven, is as breathtaking as anything any other computer-animation studio has produced. It’s a shame that these amazing images are in service of such a harmless, mediocre story, with characters whose personalities are less interesting than a single meticulously composed strand of their Viking hair.