Even in a Hollywood dominated, due to financial considerations, by sequelitis, trilogies have a shaky reputation. Second installments are often notably weak, and in the rare cases such as Return of the Jedi where they improve on the original, the third segment then typically tends to fall off. A sequence of three movies that just keeps on building on its own strengths is practically unheard-of.
The How to Train Your Dragon series of animated features from DreamWorks, written and directed by Dean DeBlois, is a rare and welcome exception to these film-industry truisms. The second movie was better than the first, and the third now tops them all, bringing the trilogy to a heartfelt, thoroughly satisfying finish. I never thought I’d be caught admitting that a movie series is markedly better than the books (by Cressida Cowell) upon which it is (very loosely) based, but here we have it. And it’s not simply because the splendid visual ride – worthy of the extra few bucks spent on goggles, if you can get to a 3-D screening – achieves wonders that the printed page cannot. This is a story with a big heart, surprisingly moving, and character development over the course of the three installments of a degree of nuance that is rarely seen in kid flicks. Special mention must be made of the lush, propulsive score by John Powell, which ramps up our emotional engagement considerably.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World finds protagonist Hiccup, a dorky young Viking (Jay Baruchel) who has successfully led his warlike tribe away from its traditional practice of killing dragons, now a leader, still questioning his own worth while presiding over an island overrun with reptilian pets of every imaginable color, size and form. Cate Blanchett is back as Hiccup’s noble mother Valka and America Ferrera as his tomboy girlfriend Astrid. Also returning are Craig Ferguson as Gobber, the blacksmith who has taught Hiccup how to make all sorts of useful Steampunkish gadgets, plus his dragon-riding posse: Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) and Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig). The latter’s twin, Tuffnut, was previously voiced by T. J. Miller, who has gotten himself into more than a spot of trouble in the real world, so Justin Rupple has taken over the role. They’re all good, and each gets some moments in the spotlight.
Hiccup and friends are still busying themselves making ninja raids on baddies who capture and enslave dragons. As a result, the Arctic island of Berk has reached its saturation point; the overcrowding looks fantastic as an animated panorama but is conducive to accidental destruction. None of the Vikings wants to give up their scaly charges now that they’ve been convinced that they’re compatible with humans, but something must be done. And the concentration of dragons makes Berk a target for the latest Big Bad: Grimmel, voiced with an unctuous Russian accent by F. Murray Abraham.
Hiccup and friends soon learn that Grimmel’s peculiar world-domination mania is to exterminate every last specimen of Night Fury, the dragon species to which Hiccup’s pal Toothless belongs. Grimmel captures a female Light Fury – with whom Toothless is immediately smitten – and uses her as bait. While his actions sometimes defy logic, the villain is of the juicy sort who likes to toy with his victims, leading to a few plot twists that yield maximal screentime for dragonback air raids and firefights. In a movie this spectacularly animated, that’s a good thing. The most stunning sequence is a visit to a secret submarine haven that lies beneath a waterfall at the edge of the world, where Hiccup hopes that the dragons of Berk can find permanent safety – if he can prevent Grimmel from finding his way there.
How to Train Your Dragon 3 is loaded with humor, both visual and verbal. There’s an outstanding sequence in which Hiccup, hiding in the shrubbery, mimes suggestions to Toothless for moves that might be effective in a mating dance to impress the standoffish Light Fury. Wiig gets to do a hilarious motormouthed “Ransom of Red Chief” routine as Grimmel’s prisoner, annoying him to the point where he kicks her out.
But it’s the heartstring-tugging that stays with you in the end, because this is a tale of a maturing youth in a maturing society. Love, Hiccup discovers, demands sacrifice, as does saving ecosystems. You’ll come out of How to Train Your Dragon 3 feeling good, in a misty-eyed sort of way. And you’ll probably wish that there could be a How to Train Your Dragon 4.