There’s something frustrating about sitting down to write a review of a movie, only to find that someone has already said everything you wanted to say, and probably said it better. Alas, such is the case with How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, in that Tasha Robinson’s exceptional review for The Verge basically nails all of my issues with the film, as well as capturing the film’s strengths nicely. And yet, here I go, attempting to go against a professional writer. Wish me luck.
The How to Train Your Dragon series, for a time, felt like something really special – a welcome breath of fresh air for Dreamworks Animation, which had been so long synonymous with bland, snarky animation without any sense of style, depth, or complexity – essentially, the worst kind of family fare. And then along came the original film, which gave us a rich fantasy story, genuine emotional stakes and payoffs, and visual style to spare, all while still delivering a fun – and funny – family film that really worked. And although the second film didn’t quite match up to the first, delivering the same style and verve but muddling the story, there was still a sense of joy to the movie.
But in the end, The Hidden World suffers from the same flaws that the second film did, and while the style, humor, and fun are still present, there’s still a sense of inessentialness that permeates the whole film. That’s not to say I didn’t have fun watching it – there are some amazing sequences of pure joy, including a long, silent flight through the clouds of two dragons, or the first glimpses of the titular hidden world, that embrace the medium of animation in a satisfying way. And the film’s knack for comic timing remains, most notably in the film’s gloriously silly dragon courtship sequences. (At its best moments, the film makes you want a nature documentary about dragons in the wild, complete with Richard Attenborough’s narration.)
But for a final entry in the series, you can’t help but feel that The Hidden World doesn’t really have much to say. Sure, the story concludes on a nice note, but it feels like it concludes because the film series is out of steam, and not because the themes or ideas really demand it. The film still doesn’t really know what to do with Hiccup’s mother, introduced in the second film, leaving her awkwardly placed somewhere between a background character and the supporting cast. The film’s villain feels like a retread of the second film’s villain, down to the disappointingly one-dimensional nature and lack of any truly interesting motivations or personality. (That the film originally planned on bringing back the second movie’s villain is evident, and makes you wonder why that idea was scrapped.) And more than anything else, the themes of the film feel thin, with too many things going on in not enough depth.
All of which sounds harsher than I mean it to, because I generally enjoyed watching The Hidden World simply as a pure, fun adventure movie. It’s stylish, it’s fun, it’s entertaining, and while it feels disappointingly thin, it’s still a good piece of entertainment. But you can’t help but feel like this series could have found a way to be so much more than that, and the fact that I left this feeling like I’d consumed just more empty calories is a bit of a letdown for a series that came out of the gate so strongly.