DreamWorks Animation loves sequels almost as much as Disney loves remaking classic animated movies as overly realistic live-action movies. When one considers that this is the same studio that produced four Shrek follow-up’s in the 10 years after the first movie’s release, it’s shocking how this is only the second How to Train Your Dragon sequel since the original film was released in March 2010. A more measured approach to producing sequels to this particular DreamWorks Animation feature has certainly paid off, the newest installment in the series, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, is the weakest entry in the series yet it still manages to stand as one of the best things to come out of the studio responsible for “cookies are for closers”.
Taking place one year after the second movie, The Hidden World sees the Viking island of Berk packed to the rafters with dragons. Though the human inhabitants of the island live in harmony with their dragons, plenty of outsiders, including our primary foe Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), wish to slaughter all of their dragons, something that the de facto leader of Berk, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), refuses to see happen. Hiccup, his trusty dragon pal Toothless, who’s become romantically smitten by a female Light Fury dragon, and his other human friends decide to fight back against Grimmel by way of searching for a legendary hidden world where all dragons originally came from that could provide sanctuary for humans and dragons alike.
This culmination of the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy is commendable in a number of respects but it’s especially impressive in its cinematography. From an opening scene depicting Hiccup and friends rescuing caged dragons that makes use of a single extended tracking shot, it’s clear director Dean DeBlois and cinematographer Gil Zimmerman will be happily maintaining the distinctive choices in camerawork that marked the prior two movies. To that end, the movie is full of sweeping shots that capture both action sequences and soaring flying sequences in a visually impressive manner, particularly since the art direction leans heavily on beautiful looking bright colors even in menacing scenes, like Grimmel’s first scene that makes great use of an ominous looking shade of noxious bright green.
Speaking of visuals, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World continues this franchises tradition of delivering excellent sequences devoid of dialogue, with this films best examples of this coming in the assorted interactions between Toothless and his Light Fury romantic interest. An early scene showing the two courting for the first time on a beach is possibly the best scene in the entire movie as it depicts these two comically struggling to connect just through the body language of these two dragons interacting with one another. The animation team responsible for these two characters does especially phenomenal work in this scene both amusing the audience with the clueless behavior of Toothless and in getting the viewer to become genuinely emotionally invested in the relationship between these two critters.
Standing in conflict with these two dragons is our new adversary, Grimmel the Grisly. Though at first I was concerned about how Grimmel is yet another human villain that serves as a dark parallel to Hiccup, the character works well enough on his own to avoid becoming overly familiar. Much of this comes from F. Murray Abraham’s exquisite vocal performance as he plays Grimmel as a calm calculating soul who savors the process of hunting down dragons like a food critic savors the taste of a sublime steak. Grimmel makes for a mighty fine foe for Hiccup to overcome while he also grapples with the struggle of trying to hold control over everything in his life, including his dragon pal Toothless.
The personal woes of Hiccup are well-realized and handled in a mature fashion, though they sometimes get undercut by the grating comedic relief. Like the second How to Train Your Dragon film, The Hidden World really doesn’t have much use for supporting characters like Snotlout (still played by Jonah Hill, whose career has gone in a completely different direction since the first movie came out) or Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), yet they keep showing up for extraneous bits of comedic relief that just grind things to a halt and don’t fit in with the rest of the movie. The fact that these characters haven’t shown any growth as characters in a series that’s extremely cognizant of how the passage of time impacts people makes the needlessly prominent and abrasive presence of these characters all the more puzzling.
Similar, it’s also a shame that Hiccup’s mom, Valka, has nothing of substance to do in this adventure, especially given that she’s voiced by Cate Blanchett. How do you have Cate Blanchett in your cast and not give her something important to do? The supporting characters and non-dragon related comedic elements are a mixed bag, but at least the screenplay does stick the landing on more important parts of the production, especially storylines dealing exclusively with the main characters of Hiccup and Toothless and any of the big poignant moments. Neither of these sequels have managed to capture the magic of the original, but I still left How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World pleased with how it wrapped up this story and especially impressed with its handful of sequences relying solely on visuals. If more of their follow-up’s had been this solid, maybe audiences would love DreamWorks Animation sequels as much as this studio clearly does.