HDreamworks Animations have always been the underdog to the goliaths of Pixar and Disney. Forming a reliance on poor films aimed at young audiences, in the hope of filling cinemas with children of non-discerning parents. Not all their output has been dreary, in signing an agreement with British animators Aardman, they released the excellent Wallace and Gromit: Curse of the Were Rabbit. As well as distributing the Shrek and Kung Fu Panda series, which were mostly adored by critics and audiences alike. These films found success due to their stunning visuals, and adult content presented in a family friendly context. Yet, there is one franchise owned by Dreamworks which hadn’t gained the attention deserved from its previous two increments, but now stands top of the UK’s 2019 box office with its third instalment.
This series is the How to Train Your Dragon films, witty adventures based around an unlikely Viking chieftain named Hiccup (played by Jay Baruchel) and his tribe, in a world where dragons and humans coexist. Based off a series of books by Cressida Cowell the films have followed Hiccup and the Vikings as they reach maturity, and their attitude towards dragons changes from fearful to respectful. By the time The Hidden World begins, Hiccups’ settlement of Berk has become a dragon sanctuary, at danger of going over capacity and gaining attention from rival Warlords who want to use the dragons for malicious purposes. To do so, they plan on using a ruthless dragon hunter known as Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), who has made it his life mission to eradicate the dragon breed known as “Night Furies”. Which, unfortunately for Hiccup is the breed of his dragon, Toothless, who acts as the alpha for their settlement. Once these stakes have been established through an excellently framed confrontation between hunter and chieftain, the film soon devolves into a form of chase movie. As the Vikings are forced on the run to find the mystical Hidden World where man and dragon can exist peacefully.
Sadly the plot doesn’t stretch itself much farther than this, as the search for the Hidden World comes to an anticlimactic conclusion. The film also throughout relying more heavily on set pieces, falling into the trilogy trap of final instalments doing everything bigger as a final send off. However, there is also some surprisingly complex character development rarely seen within family movies shown here. The series has always dealt with difficult familial themes, but in this instalment we are presented these issues from the opposite side, as the difficulties of letting go of a loved one are explored in depth. Paired both with the value of self-confidence, and the series’ signature theme of disability representation. Both Hiccup and Toothless have prosthetic limbs, after the events of the previous films and this third entry does a great job of showing them coming to terms with the difficulties they face, whilst never letting it define them as characters. Family friendly films rely heavily on the messages they portray to impressionable audiences, and none do this better than How to Train Your Dragon.
The film also looks incredible throughout, taking lessons from Roger Deakins’ involvement in the second entry in the franchise. Deakins told animators not to be afraid of shrouding characters in darkness for atmospheric purposes, or use alternating depths of field for a more cinematic feel. Both being traits rarely seen within animation. The result of this allows locales seen only briefly to take on unique identities, a pirate ship shrouded by fog in an early scene is heavily foreboding as vision is cut dramatically and characters silhouetted. Meanwhile, snow capped mountains shown in one of the films’ visceral aerial battles present a brutality that becomes more apparent as the dragons and riders edge closer to their crumbling peaks. There’s a stringent attention to detail that is equally impressive on characters. With the confident canine-esque animation of the dragons and individual composure and presentation of the Vikings, right down to Hiccups’ patches of stubble shown in more well lit areas, detailing the period of post adolescence we find them in.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World may be sparser in terms of plot than its predecessors, but it builds brilliantly upon the series’ established themes while staying consistently entertaining. This is a film made with extreme care, and one that should be seen on the biggest screen possible. If this is the end of the series then it’s a roaring crescendo rather than a tame whimper.