Training continues, as the baggy final “Dragon” installment manages to marginally capture some of the magic of the franchise.
Dragon fatigue is hard to shake in this presumably last “How to” film. What once was endearing will still resonate with little ones, while older viewers might groan as the bulk of “The Hidden World” leans heavily into uninventive slapstick and forced cute. This third and final theatrical outing lacks the tension and danger that made the first two movies pull authentically at your heart strings.
This time around, Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel) is securely in place as the undisputed leader of island of Berk. His people have fully embraced life with dragons, but this new lifestyle has led to overcrowding. Oddly, dragons and people are tightly pressed into a limited seaside village area that strains to contain them all. No effort is made to spread out and occupy the green space of their land, which appears to offer plenty of additional room. But rather than expanding onto the other parts of Berk, Hiccup proposes that they pick up and leave in search of a hidden, mythical land. Of course, this move becomes emergent when Hiccup and his dragon-freeing clan draw the ire of a fearsome group of dragon trappers.
Frankly, to say that these dragon trappers are “fearsome” is a great overstatement. They are a collection of bumbling fools from what we are immediately able to discern. Hiccup and his girlfriend Astrid’s first encounter with them proves to be something akin to a comedy routine, as the trappers “weeble wobble” about providing little meaningful opposition. And this is why these “rough” men of the dragon trade retain the ruthless services of a dragon killer named Grimmel (voice of F. Murray Abraham). It’s Grimmel that promises to capture or kill Hiccup’s protector Toothless and deliver Berk’s entire flock of scaly beasts into the arms of the trappers.
So, vacating the island for a far off land is definitely necessary, right? No! This insane decision makes absolutely no logical sense, and to his credit, Grimmel aptly points this out. So much of “Hidden World” is without rhyme or reason. It’s all a little too fantastic and even childish, as an entire nation follows the boyish Hiccup on a quest that lasts… well, only a couple days. Without much effort, it seems, an entire population finds a new place to live. This is a real head-scratcher.
No matter, “Hidden World” isn’t trying to make sense. Instead, it’s about the characters that we love and our desire to see them in another adventure. And from the trailers, and the poster, viewers will already know that Toothless finds a suitable mate in a light dragon. This playful relationship is the most authentic thing in the film. But it’s marred by a sappy sequence in which Hiccup, of all people, tries to give his friend dating advice. Little ones in my viewing audience did giggle, but big laughs were sparse.
The animation is mighty fine. Cartoonish creations are placed in and against realistic environments. The clouds sure are lovely, as the dragons soar to great heights. And the dragons come in so many varieties that just watching them all interact is enough for a feature film alone. Everything has detail, texture, and weight, which is a shame, because the narrative, in comparison, proves to be contrived and even shallow in places.
The script, written by director Dean DeBlois and “Dragon” author Cressida Cowell, is frustrating. Random flashbacks are shoehorned in whenever convenient. And sadly, those flashbacks offer great potential to explain character motivations. We needed to learn more about Hiccup and his father and about Grimmel’s bloodlust. Shoved to the side is Astrid (voice of America Ferrera) and Valka (voiced by Cate Blanchett), Hiccup’s dragon warrior mother. These characters stand largely idly by as Hiccup nearly leads them all to ruin.
The shape of the film is awkward. What could have built from a worrisome position to an inspirational one merely leads to a perfunctory climatic battle sequence. It’s all a little too formulaic. And the emotional flashbacks never really connect with the rest of the story, making the entire film feel rushed and phony.
Even though the bulk of “Hidden World” wallows in tiresome slapstick battle sequences, thankfully, there’s just enough of the old meaningful sentiment to warm our hearts. This is especially on display in the film’s closing moments, which remind us why we fell in love with this dragon fantasy in the first place. This franchise is about training, after all, and not just training dragons, because people have a lot to learn as well.