How to train your dragon: the hidden world

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD. Voices of Jay Baruchel, Cate Blanchett, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Kit Harington, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Justin Rupple, Kristen Wiig, F. Murray Abraham. Directed by Dean DeBlois. 104 minutes. Rated PG (Mild fantasy themes and violence).

If there’s any justice in the world, the ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ trilogy, based on the book series by Cressida Cowell, will be remembered as DreamWorks Animation’s best saga. With ‘The Hidden World’, writer-director Dean DeBlois rounds out his trilogy with another simple, heartfelt story enlivened by stunning animation and a terrific score.

This threequel picks up a few years after the ending of ‘How to Train Your Dragon 2’, with young Viking chieftain Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) continuing his quest of dragon liberation. The film opens with Hiccup and his largely inept strike force attacking a trapper’s ship full of captive dragons. His comrades include bickering twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple), image-obsessed second-in-command Snotlout (Jonah Hill), stocky sketch artist Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and Hiccup’s fiancé, the spirited and emotionally astute Astrid (America Ferrera). Their weapons and armour have been upgraded in the interim, with the crew all donning flame-retardant suits made from dragon scales, though that doesn’t seem to stop them from bickering constantly and getting in one another’s way, much to Hiccup’s mother Valka’s (Cate Blanchett) bemused frustration. The action scenes are dazzlingly choreographed, tending towards long takes and frames crowded with bustling figures and flame and smoke. The fingerprints of visual consultant Roger Deakins, the renowned cinematographer who served in the same capacity on the previous two films, can be noticed all over the film’s look. The camera moves are elegant and coherent, and the shot compositions are handsome and well-framed.

With these dragons freed, Hiccup and his faithful companion Toothless – a sleek black Night Fury who is the last known dragon of his kind – head back to their village, Berk. Since Hiccup and his pals began their emancipatory mission, Berk has become home to hundreds of dragons, filling every cubic inch of available space. The villagers are on the verge of being crowded out of their own homes, but they have come to rely on their scaly friends for both the practical benefits that they offer (like stress-free heating solutions) and companionship. Throw in the furious warlords that Hiccup and company have put offside through their anti-poaching raids, who are now hellbent on revenge and have recruited the notorious dragon slayer Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham) to their cause, and things are looking dicey for Berk’s inhabitants, both human and dragon!

In flashbacks, we hear Hiccup’s father, the late Chief Stoick (Gerard Butler), tell his infant son about a mysterious place at the edge of the Earth, known as the Hidden World, where all dragons are said to have originated. While Stoick once tried to find the Hidden World and seal it off to protect his fellow Vikings, Hiccup vows to find the mythical location in the hope that it might provide a safe new home for his clan and their reptile pals. However, when a female Night Fury appears, which Astrid dubs a Light Fury because of its pearlescent white colouring, Toothless becomes distracted from Hiccup’s quest, venturing out alone to win the affections of a potential mate. With Grimmel and his terrifying Deathgrippers (red and black goanna-like creatures with vicious tusks and poison-tipped stingers) breathing down their necks, Hiccup will need all his wits and the support of his followers to ensure their survival.

The first film was about the unexpected friendship that blossomed between Hiccup and Toothless, while its sequel explored the rekindled relationship between Hiccup and his previously absentee mother, Valka. These deceptively simple plots used the dragons as a secret spice to dress up classic stories in the vein of archetypal ‘a boy and his dog’ and ‘estranged parent returns home’ narratives. ‘The Hidden World’ does the same, exploring Hiccup’s competing responsibilities to his clan and his scaly best friend, as well as Toothless’ blossoming love story with the Light Fury, two stories that boil down to simple, universal themes. Again, they’re simple tales, but writer-director Dean DeBlois maintains his focus on the emotions at their core, which keeps the film driving forward with great purpose and injects each character interaction and action beat with meaning.

The animation is excellent –the detail with which they render sand and cloud formations is astonishing, while the rich imagination on display in the colourful, kaleidoscopic structures of the Hidden World dazzle – and the score by returning composer John Powell is a highlight. Powell’s cues are emotive when they need to be and soar when the dragons take flight. His contribution to the series cannot be downplayed.

The ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ films are ostensibly for children. However, like all great family films, they bely this categorisation with top-tier craft and stories that touch viewers of all ages. After two great movies, ‘The Hidden World’ gives the series the emotionally satisfying conclusion that it deserves. The fact that the filmmakers were able to meet the high bar set by the previous instalments might be even more miraculous than the existence of dragons.

Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Out January 1.

Universal Pictures