Going for the threepeat, the How to Train Your Dragon series ends on a high enough note that fans won’t be feeling a discernible letdown. So while How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (*** out of four) might be the runt of this particular litter, it won’t come near to stirring memories of The Matrix Revolutions, X-Men: The Last Stand or other trilogy closers that left depressed devotees reaching for the Jack Daniels.
Based on the children’s book by Cressida Cowell, 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon centered on Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), a young Viking who befriended a Night Fury dragon he named Toothless. The conflict there came from the fact that humans and dragons were sworn enemies, a stance that melted away by the film’s conclusion. In 2014’s How to Train Your Dragon 2, everyone in Hiccup’s village of Berk had a pet dragon, yet fun and games weren’t the order of the day in that picture, a second installment that was a shade darker and deeper than its predecessor (basically, it was The Empire Strikes Back of the franchise).
In How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, Berk has blossomed into a paradise for human and dragon alike, with Hiccup constantly rescuing dragons imprisoned elsewhere and adding them to his village’s population. But not everything is groovy in this corner of the world. The tagline for the 1935 classic Bride of Frankenstein asserted that “the monster demands a mate,” and that’s applicable here as well. OK, so Toothless is too adorable to be deemed a monster, and he doesn’t exactly demand, but once he catches sight of a female Light Fury, he becomes smitten. Unfortunately, the Light Fury is a prisoner of the ruthless dragonslayer Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), and he plots to use her as bait to capture Toothless. Desperate to save not just Toothless but all the dragons in his domain, Hiccup convinces everyone to pack up their belongings to begin the long journey to The Hidden World, a place where he hopes Berkians and beasts can continue to live in peace.
What made the first two Dragon installments pop is that the themes of responsibility and sacrifice — often only given insincere lip service in animated features — were carefully woven into the fabric of the stories, thus raising the emotional stakes when the characters were confronted with hard decisions or even the specter of death itself. That continues in full force in this latest picture, with the best moments saved for the last act. Indeed, the final stretch is what provides this entry with its power and makes it a worthy companion piece to its predecessors. In other words, don’t be too surprised if lumps suddenly develop in the throat.
The character of Valka (Cate Blanchett), Hiccup’s mother, joined the series in the second chapter and proved to be a vital player; here, she’s reduced to an afterthought. But the trusty Gobber (Craig Ferguson) again provides the reliable comic relief, and even the antics of Hiccup’s dim-witted friends (voiced by, among others, Kristen Wiig and Jonah Hill) are more amusing and less irritating than usual. Grimmel proves to be a worthy adversary, and Astrid (America Ferrera) continues to ably function as Hiccup’s wonder woman, serving as romantic interest, sounding board, conscience, and kick-ass warrior.
As for the animation, it remains top-notch, particularly in the design of the various dragons. This is especially true when it comes to Toothless, whose look and movements resemble nothing so much as a silky feline. More than any other visual ingredient in this imaginatively conceived franchise, he has steadfastly remained the cat’s meow.