When it comes to contemporary animation, Dreamworks’ “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise has dominated the non-Pixar market. The trilogy, which follows Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III (Jay Baruchel) and his faithful dragon Toothless, has delighted audiences with heart, humor and gorgeous visuals. The enchanting first film, which debuted in 2010, was followed by 2014’s spectacular sequel and, with “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” the conclusion has finally arrived. Luckily, the film maintains its predecessors’ remarkable computer graphics and emotional impact. Unfortunately, this technical achievement and heart is dragged down by a flimsy plot, dull villain and unsuccessful humor, which culminate in the weakest entry of the series.
At the conclusion of “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” Hiccup officially became chieftain of the Viking village of Berk when Drago Bludvist (Djimon Hounsou) tragically murdered Hiccup’s father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler). With Drago defeated and Berk established as a dragon-Viking utopia, Hiccup, his girlfriend Astrid Hofferson (America Ferrera) and his friends look to bring more dragons back to Berk. However, this inflow of dragons catches the eye of Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), a notorious dragon killer who has his eyes on Toothless, Hiccup’s dragon. To escape Grimmel’s wrath and save his village, Hiccup must find a legendary hidden world before the dragons are slaughtered.
First and foremost, the film’s visuals are unsurprisingly jaw-dropping. Each of the “Dragon” films has been beautifully rendered, and this one is no exception. Whether it’s the eye-popping colors of Berk or the individual hairs on Hiccup’s face, the film spares no expense in its visual detail. This is likely a credit to cinematography legend Roger Deakins (“The Shawshank Redemption,” “Fargo”), who served as the film’s visual consultant. The hidden world itself is breathtakingly vibrant and tastefully realized. It’s a shame that the film doesn’t spend much time there. Instead the movie devotes most of its screen time to a lackluster plot.
Perhaps the greatest flaw of “The Hidden World” is the wasted potential of its villain. Grimmel is initially introduced as a skull-crushing, ruthless badass with venom-spitting dragon henchmen and no moral compass. He’s certainly a foil to our bold and sympathetic hero Hiccup, who befriended the first Night Fury he encountered. Grimmel, on the other hand, is notorious for murdering Night Furies. However, as has become far too typical in action films, he is utterly uncompelling other than the fact that he’s — wait for it — an evil guy. Sometimes this flaw can be navigated around when a villain is incredibly menacing or scary, but Grimmel is not, despite a strong vocal performance by Abraham.
An uninspired villain can be salvaged by an intriguing story, but director Dean DeBlois’ screenplay is overpacked and rushed. Hiccup and the villagers abandon their beloved home overnight without complaint, even though they lived there for generations. With Berk out of the picture, the film lacks a backbone; none of the other settings are nearly as compelling as Berk, save for the hidden world. The film tries to fit a lot into its 105-minute runtime — two romantic subplots, a villain, roughly 10 major characters and three different settings — and, naturally, several principal characters are left out of the action. Dragon hunter Eret (Kit Harington) and Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett), two significant players in the previous film, are relegated to the sidelines in this one. Even Hiccup’s character arc is not as strong as it could be, which is especially disappointing considering this is the trilogy’s final film. Instead, the filmmakers could have advanced the timeline to make him more mature and give him new problems, rather than picking up shortly after the second film.
More than its predecessors, this film goes heavy on humor, particularly among Hiccup’s friends Snoutlout (Jonah Hill), Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig). Each receives more screen time than previous films, but none is very funny or necessary to the plot. Sure, these animated films are aimed at children, but their jokes often feel like grating and gratuitous asides. More successful is the humor around Hiccup and Astrid’s relationship, which isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but still advances their romance in a sweet and earnest way.
Still, the film, anchored by Toothless, has an undeniable heart. No CGI character since Wall-E has managed as much emotion or character without speaking a single word. He’s given a romantic subplot with a female Night Fury (a “Light Fury”) that results in some of the film’s most charming, yet silent, sequences. Adorable and admirably animated, it’s in these sequences, not the bombastic fight scenes, that the film succeeds most. The action set-pieces lack the gravitas and intensity that made the second film an animation masterpiece.
On its own, “The Hidden World” is an impressive feat, but as a trilogy capper, it underwhelms. It’s hands down the weakest link of the franchise, but that also speaks to the remarkable quality of its predecessors. While it takes a step forward technologically and may bring you to tears, it seems like the series has finally run out of steam. “The Hidden World” is full of heart, but ultimately lacks teeth.