Having long since taught us how to train our dragons, DreamWorks’ franchise has moved on to bigger — and, it turns out, better — things. Rare is the animated sequel not part of the “Toy Story” mythos to justify its existence to anyone other than the kiddos, and yet “” manages to do that by ending the now-complete trilogy on a high note.
That’s in part because the series has taken its time. It’s been nearly five years since “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” which followed the original by four years; we’ve now been watching Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless grow up for nearly a decade, and the movies have come of age with them. Directed once again by Dean DeBlois, “The Hidden World” strikes a bittersweet chord in reminding its young audience that all good things — including the age of dragons — must come to an end.
Hiccup, now the leader of his tribe, has helped create “the first dragon-viking utopia,” but such things never last — especially in the first act of a sequel. There are two main developments this time out: Hiccup’s plan to move his colony to the Hidden World, a mythical dragon paradise that may or may not exist, and Toothless falling in love with a fellow night-fury. The most captivating sequences involve their surprisingly sweet courtship; a near-silent film featuring just them and their fellow dragons doing dragon things may well have been better, if far less commercially viable (at least we’ll always have “The Red Turtle”).
Not that Hiccup and his cohort want to move. The pilgrimage is spurred by the misdeeds of Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a dragon hunter whose view of the creatures is considerably less utopian than Hiccup’s. Their very existence is at risk, to say nothing of their way of life, putting the onus on a young leader to rise to the challenge and lead his people out of harm’s way.
Therein lies the biggest problem with “The Hidden World”: its hero. Hiccup makes for a far less compelling protagonist than his flying friend, not least because the young upstart makes it easy to agree with his deep-seated fear that he’s an uninspiring leader who’d be nowhere without Toothless. It doesn’t help that Baruchel’s voicework is more suited to a plucky kid than the leader of a viking tribe, which is only underscored by the fact that Hiccup’s father is voiced by Gerard Butler. (Also lending their voices to this installment are Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Kit Harington, Justin Rupple, Kristen Wiig, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse.)
At least the villain is worthy of contempt. Grimmel, who looks a bit like Dracula-era Christopher Lee, believes the only good dragon is a good dragon — not that he minds using a small army of them to achieve this predatory end. Voiced with fitting panache by Abraham, he’s sinister enough to make you briefly forget, at times, that there’s no way a “How to Train Your Dragon” will end with all the dragons going extinct (but what a climax that would be!).
Then there’s the Hidden World itself, a bright, Edenic locale brought to life with some of the most eye-catching CGI in recent memory. The animation itself is striking — an early sequence in which the sky is filled with dragons is an early sign of the visual treats to come — and ends up being the film’s highlight.
Though obviously aimed at kiddos, this chapter of “How to Train Your Dragon” might be best appreciated by below-the-line enthusiasts with an appreciation for the nitty-gritty that goes into an animated movie with a reported price tag of $129 million. You can see every cent onscreen, often in more vivid detail than you can see Hiccup’s internal journey. That’s enough to carry “The Hidden World” past the finish line — and make you hope it stays finished.
“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” will be released in theaters on February 22.