Is it possible to sell a family franchise where the director has openly stated the USP, a love affair of sorts, must end? This is the unenviable task facing Dean DeBlois’ concluding DreamWorks adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon stories. Thankfully, with The Hidden World, he manages it. Just. Take tissues.
Hiccup, the gangly kid who saved the dragon he was meant to kill in the first film, is now the island of Berk’s chief. He’s still an interrupted gasp, good for eccentric problem-solving, and (thanks to voice actor Jay Baruchel) remains as refreshingly chastened by his past mistakes as he is excited by life. It gets in the way of his communally-expected marriage to Astrid (America Ferrera), and the whole film is permeated by the awkwardness of these conflicts. This becomes more pressing when the island is threatened by a dragon trapper.
Beat the ‘boss’, romance Astrid, Hiccup learns to love himself. It’s pretty much the same template as previous outings and the storyline is incredibly simple. This time, however, the dots are joined, making the action seem honest and believable, from Hiccup’s traditional monologue-turned-tour guide through to the rites of passage that are there just because we/they don’t know what to do with our lives otherwise.
Kids will be kept amused by photorealistic cinematography that draws you into the gorgeous worlds, Toothless’ eternal cuteness, and pretty fight sequences aplenty - though some may be a bit much for very young children; the film starts with a character assuming the armoured Hiccup is a demon. Adults may be more intrigued by Aryan-style bad guy (Amadeus Oscar-winner F. Murray Abraham) and the tricksy idea of freedom, though this could have been developed further. The heart of the series, however, has shifted. Toothless is now less Hiccup’s partner in crime, more a child whom he coochy-coos. This guides the narrative and moral arcs, but restrains the exploration of risky friendship that the first two films did so brilliantly. Justin Rupple (as a slightly gruffer Tuffnut than T J Miller) and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (as the ever-clucking Fishlegs) in particular bring more of their characters’ unintentionally unhelpful and daffy (slyly political) conduct from the Netflix series than the previous films allowed, but Hiccup seems more isolated; Astrid is prompted by Hiccup’s mother (Cate Blanchett) to prop him up periodically.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World makes it real and remains largely true to the overarching spirit of the series. Its final sequences have wonder and hope, bolstered as always by the dancing melodies of Jonsi and John Powell. The challenge is not how to train your dragon, but remembering how to ride forever.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD / CERT: PG / DIRECTOR & SCREENPLAY: DEAN DeBLOIS / STARRING: CATE BLANCHETT, GERARD BUTLER, KIT HARINGTON / RELEASE DATE: 1ST FEBRUARY