The introduction of Toothless’ female counterpart, referred to as a Light Fury due to her white coloring, provides the film with an opportunity to give its human and dragon leads shared arcs. This has been the case before, as How to Train Your Dragon 2 ended with Hiccup and Toothless both ascending to leadership, but the link is deeper and more meaningful here. Hiccup has long been dating the fiery and militarily competent Astrid (America Ferrara), but his focus on exploration and adventure have kept him from marriage. Meanwhile, Toothless was reduced to watching other dragons pair off in tilted-head confusion before the discovery of the skittish Light Fury. Forming pair-bonds is the next stage in both characters’ maturity. The franchise has previously used the power of dusk-lit dragon rides as a strong first date between Hiccup and Astrid, but DeBlois one-ups himself with the courtship of Toothless and the Light Fury, a delicate dance amongst the clouds that’s as tactile as any live-action film. The film makes an easy case that while the franchise’s flight sequences have been joyful and exhilarating, there are other, more stable kinds of joy to be had once the thrill has worn off.
Giving over so much ground to a nonverbal dragon is a surprising choice, but Toothless has long been one of the franchise’s greatest successes. Invested with the most endearing behavior of both cats and dogs, he’s inherently lovable. The Hidden World makes him moreso by introducing the weird mating rituals of birds into his repertoire, a hilarious addition that comes from a real place. The sounds that come out of the creature are worthy of sound editing Oscars, with each film building in new grunts and chirps with implied meaning.
On the human side, the voice cast has remained intact since 2010, with one exception due to sexual misconduct allegations and a fake bomb threat, but here nor there. Baruchel existed in a tentative adolescent state in the first and second entry, but he’s more confident here, lacking in the actor’s usual fumfuring that wouldn’t work for a Viking chief. In a film with a large supporting cast, some characters are going to be reduced to comic support, and that’s the role of Jonah Hill and Christopher Mintz-Plasse. It’s also where Kristin Wiig’s character finds herself but the film finds room for her to give a meaty, stream-of-consciousness monologue. The Hidden World leaves Cate Blanchett, playing Hiccup’s long-lost mother, to rest atop the work that was done in How to Train Your Dragon 2, reducing her to an advisor role, and as Astrid, Ferrara‘s character has never really popped outside of some exceptions in the series opener. As the bad guy, Abraham plays Grimmel as a dandy and a mad scientist, though his motives of destruction and domination don’t make him much more complex than the average Marvel villain. The surprise supporting cast MVP is Gerard Butler as Stoick, Hiccup’s deceased father who is glimpsed in a flashback. The character is a mass of a man, but the flashback is one of quiet, candlelit grief interrupted by a very young Hiccup who looks small enough to fit in his father’s giant mitts. Butler plays it with a level of gentleness and vulnerability that I’ve never seen the live-action version of Butler be able to conjure.
While the supporting cast and the antagonist aren’t as great as they could be, they’d have to be racist caricatures to significantly weigh down a film so emotionally potent and technically masterful. For the former, callbacks to the original are subtle and evocative and brilliant in how they tie the first and final films together, both visually and sonically with timely revisits to John Powell’s iconic original score on top of the new and beautiful work he composes for The Hidden World. For the latter, DeBlois and the Dreamworks team are at the peak of the medium with the film’s pristine animation and well-calibrated lighting, always exactly right for the film’s many nighttime indoor scenes. As if it all wasn’t pitched towards maximum effectiveness, DeBlois closes the franchise with a perfect epilogue that mixes emotion with cutesiness as ably as any Miyazaki film. How to Train Your Dragon will persist as one of the best franchises during a period lousy with them. Animated films have rarely felt as disposable and empty as they do now, words that have nothing to do with The Hidden World and its predecessors. A-