Ambitiously crafted as the end to a cinematic trilogy, “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” takes a long time to get to its best bits, meandering at times along the way. At the end it’s a satisfying resolution, without reaching the same heights that the original achieved.
There’s certainly a more adult quality to the themes in this latest sequel, which, among other things, spends considerable time on parallel romances, although it clearly appears more enamored with the details of dragon courtship than its key human pair.
Now chief of his village of Berk, the once-hapless Hiccup (again voiced by Jay Baruchel) has sought to create “the world’s first dragon-Viking utopia.” But he quickly faces a new crisis, with dragon trappers threatening the happy if messy harmony the Vikings have established with their one-time foes, the dragons, who follow the alpha male with whom Hiccup bonded, Toothless.
The trappers have enlisted a malevolent figure named Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), who despises dragons but knows enough about their behavior to recognize Toothless as the linchpin of his plan to capture them all.
The danger forces Hiccup to consider drastic measures, embarking on a quest to find the “Hidden World” of which his late father had spoken, a haven for dragons that might provide sanctuary for man and reptile alike. Yet his unsteadiness as a leader complicates his own relationship with Astrid (America Ferrera), who seeks to support him while expressing unease about the prospect of marriage.
Writer-director Dean DeBlois (a veteran of all three films) juggles a whole lot of moving parts, as well as disparate tones, specifically in the lyrical nature of Toothless’ interaction with a female Night Fury dragon – scenes played silently for long stretches, other than John Powell’s lush score, in a manner that almost approximates a nature film – and Hiccup’s familiar assortment of comic-relief sidekicks.
By the time it’s over there is an abundance of action, if a slightly chaotic aspect to it; indeed, portions of this “Dragon” seems to be killing time, before tackling larger questions that involve placing the happiness and well-being of others – however exotic they might be – above one’s own in the name of loyalty and friendship.
Despite the epic elements in the storytelling and some beautiful rendered imagery, little here quite matches the simple “The Black Stallion”-esque appeal of an outcast boy and a wounded dragon finding each other – and creating peace as a bonus – that elevated the first film, however gamely “The Hidden World” tries.
The result is a solidly made animated feature, but one more notable for the height of its aspirations than its consistent ability to deliver on them.
DreamWorks Animation has billed the movie as a finale, a claim easy to view with skepticism when such a valuable commodity – having already amassed more than $175 million from release outside the US – is involved. To the extent “The Hidden World” puts a nifty bow on this children’s book turned movie franchise, it would be nice if the studio actually does let sleeping dragons lie.
“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” premieres Feb. 22 in the US. It’s rated PG.