How To Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World (review)

A wholly satisfying conclusion to an incredible trilogy. What more can I say?

I have a very special relationship with the How to Train Your Dragon films. Prior to the release of the first film, I was one of those kids who was more interested in maths and the sciences. Basically, I was destined to become an engineer or a doctor and make my Asian parents proud (Joke! Just a joke!). Then in March 2010, I saw How to Train Your Dragon for the first time.

I am fully aware that How to Train Your Dragon isn’t exactly a monumental force in cinema, it’s never going to be taught in one of those ‘proper’ film schools you hear about. And yeah, I’m 99.9% sure people are going to consider Citizen Kane, or The Godfather, or Star Wars, or even Toy Story as more influential films in cinema first. Whatever those are.

Yet, that humble little film about a boy and his dragon was enough to spark a change in me. Something about that story, those characters, the visuals, and that incredible score, made me want to be a storyteller.

I ditched science and maths, and turned to writing and the arts. Flash-forward 9 years, and here I am in the final year of my English and Creative Writing degree. And, in a roundabout sort of way, I have that film to thank for it.

There is a point to this extended preamble, and it’s to illustrate how much these films mean to me, and the immeasurable influence they’ve had. I wear my inspirations on my sleeve, and there’s a little bit of Dragons in all my writing. I can’t help it.

I’m a fan of a fair few films and franchises… okay, I’m a fan of quite a lot of them. But there is something special about the How to Train Your Dragon films, in such a way that will only matter to me.

So, of course the final instalment of the film series that got me here comes out mere months before I graduate. Journey’s end in more ways than one.

Let’s jump into the final chapter of this saga: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.

A year after the events of How to Train Your Dragon 2, Hiccup has now settled into his role as chief and transformed Berk into a perfect (if crowded) dragon utopia. Hiccup and his fellow dragon riders carry out regular rescue missions and keep adding more dragons into the mix. However, a new enemy appears and threatens the destruction of this utopia. While Toothless discovers that he is not the last of his kind and the female white Night Fury (dubbed Light Fury by Hiccup and Astrid) is thrown into the mix. It’s down to Hiccup and Toothless to figure out a path to peace, and save their respective worlds, which all comes to a head in an emotional gut-punch of a finale.

That is the key behind this film. The Hidden World is fully aware of the power behind a good ending, and weaponizes it. In the same vein of franchise films like Logan, or even Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 (until Fantastic Beasts became a thing anyway).  It is refreshing, in a world where every film series now seems to take after the seemingly never-ending Marvel Studios model, to see a trilogy. A trilogy that knew it was always going to be just a trilogy, one story that evolves over the course of these three films to reach its natural conclusion.

That’s why I can’t really say whether this film is particularly better or worse than the first two. The more I think about it, the more equal they end up in my estimations. Being the third instalment, you have already decided whether you’re on board for this or not. If you’re not a fan of the first two, this isn’t going to win you over. But if you are, well, there’s more of what you love. In many large doses.

First things first, the animation is stellar. I don’t know how they keep getting better with each instalment. Especially when the budget has decreased film by film, (this is the cheapest film of the trilogy at just $129 million compares to the 1st’s $165 million and the 2nd’s $145 million). The flying sequences are as spectacular as always, and the action has some excellent choreography to it. The backgrounds and scenery are so near realistic that it’s hard to fathom that they’re not real.

Although, this film has avoided the recent Disney problem where the photorealistic settings cause the cartoony characters to stick out like a sore thumb (see The Good Dinosaur and Cars 3). The characters are animated with real fluidity and weight, top notch work by the character animators.

In terms of character animation, Grimmel is a refreshing change of pace for the How to Train Your Dragon series, which in the past has tended to go for the more shouty and loud villains. He’s got a nice level of charisma, and it actually allowed for scenes where he had some fun. That said, his motivation isn’t really there. Like, it’s mentioned but not explored. It makes him a bit flat, but at least entertaining to watch.

However, the real stars of the character animation department are Toothless and the Light Fury. Their mannerisms, weight and characteristics are all down to a tee, to the point where if these dragons were real, I’m pretty sure this is actually how they would behave. It’s so clear that a lot of care and thought went into bringing everything to life, but these two were especially a real highlight.

Also, the sand, I know that’s a weird one to bring up. But you’ll know what I mean when you see the film.

The plot has never been the strength of these movies, and The Hidden World is no exception. But writer/director Dean DeBlois overcomes these shortfalls with the amazing character work you’ve come to expect from these films. Hiccup and Toothless, Hiccup and Astrid, Toothless and the Light Fury; they are all wonderfully realised and given their moments to shine throughout the film. Even Hiccup’s band of dragon riders aren’t as annoying as they have been in previous instalments, though the comedy with them is still pretty hit and miss.

That said, it is the moments when DeBlois gives the characters room to breathe that the film really shines. And it’s really no surprise, since they were the highlights of the last two films as well, but it is the scenes with little to no dialogue that really stand out.

And what better time to talk about John Powell’s magnificent score for this film. New themes, returning motifs, it’s all pretty great stuff. While I don’t think the scores for the second or third instalment have as many catchy tunes as the first film’s music, you get a real sense that the score has matured as the films have progressed. The end results are some, quite frankly, beautiful pieces of music. It should be no surprise that I am listening the score as I write this review, because it is that good.

I don’t think it can be understated just how well this works as a finale to this series. The Hiccup at the end of this film is not the same as the one at the start of the first film. There is growth throughout this trilogy, and I love it.

Perhaps what’s most impressive is that you get the feeling that this was a trilogy by design, rather than one film with sequels glued on. The themes of ‘letting go’ and ‘change’ are consistent film by film but evolve with each instalment. And it does reach its natural conclusion here.

Is The Hidden World a perfect film? No. Does it get everything right? No. Does it absolutely know what matters to an audience invested in these films for the last 9 years? Hell. Yes.

At the end of the day, it’s just a humble little story about a boy and his dragon.

Side note: Don’t know why this wasn’t just titled How to Train Your Dragon 3. Especially seeing as the titular ‘Hidden World’ plays such a small role in the film, and a numbered title would have kept it consistent with the second film. It’s the smallest of small nit-picks, but the inconsistency is bugging me.

Now let’s talk about that ending. The ending of the ending if you will. Because the epilogue of this film is where it really soars, if you’ll forgive the pun. It pulls all of the emotional gut punches within the space of ten minutes, and I unashamedly cried like three times.

It is the perfect ending, and I couldn’t ask for anything better. Beautifully directed, wonderfully paced, excellently written, and draws some adoring parallels to the first film. Even if the rest of the film was awful, it wouldn’t matter – and just to clarify it really wasn’t. They stuck the landing so well.

Please don’t do a Toy Story and make a fourth one. Please.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is playing at the Commodore Cinema until 7th February, 1st-3rd at 14:30 and 4th-7th at 17:00.