“Greedy humans will always find a way”
In 2009, as a presenter for the Oscars, Jack Black joked that “each year I do one DreamWorks project, then I take all the money to the Oscars and bet it on Pixar.” The fact that this still stands out to me as one of the funniest jokes I’ve heard at the Academy Awards says a lot about the quality of recent shows, but that’s for another article.
Black’s joke was, and largely remains, factual. Combined, Disney/Pixar have accounted for 12 Best Animated Feature wins, and this award has only been a category since 2002. They make films that are beloved by critics and seen as more mature than standard kid movie fare. Dreamworks, on the other hand, has leaned more towards irreverent comedy, both in their casting and writing. This has led to fantastic results when it works (Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy’s masterful banter in Shrek, Jack Black’s Kung Fu Panda) and becomes a laughable mess when it fails (Shark Tale and Bee Movie).
My perception changed when the first How to Train Your Dragon was released. Not only did it have the comedy, but it also had an incredibly engaging plot, and the second one followed suit, with the maturity of the story aging with the audience and the main character Hiccup, and it has all culminated to this final chapter.
Just like parts one and two of the trilogy, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is not a Pixar wannabe. It is a truly brilliant animated movie, with emotional depth and exciting action to rival anything else recently released in the genre. If you happen to read this before seeing the movie, you may question this assertion when the first big joke of the movie is a dragon rider accidentally lighting his butt on fire. As soon as the crew saves dragons and lands back in Berk, the movie quickly becomes centered on the part of one’s “coming-of-age” story that is post-credits for most kids’ movies. Our protagonist Hiccup has to settle down, accept his status as head of his village, and let his dragon Toothless find his own happiness.
The Hidden World could have dealt with these adult themes in an oversimplified way for kids, or tried to skirt the topics altogether. Instead, they go full force into them, with a maturity that engages adults and enough funny jokes for kids to keep up. During one scene, Toothless tries to court a female Night Fury dragon with a mating ritual, humorously relying on bad direction by Hiccup to get through. The older viewers can see and relate to the parallels between Toothless’ and Hiccup’s love arcs, and the struggles that come because of it. Stakes in the movie are higher than other standard animated features, and Hiccup’s mom often came in with lines that seem to be speaking as much to the modern-day audience as she was to those on-screen. There’s also some well-placed comic relief from Tuffnut and Ruffnut that both make you laugh and progress the plot.
Animation is the one genre that I can accept watching in 3D, and The Hidden World uses the added visual depth well, without getting gimmicky with things flying at you constantly. The real visual achievement, however, was the animation itself. Water and clouds have never seemed so real, the textures were mind-blowing. Two minor details I judge computer animation on are hair and grass; it is a shockingly difficult piece to texture correctly with all of the natural movement. The Hidden World is a gigantic step forward for animating these almost exactly as they react in the real world, and it’s really amazing to watch in comparison to other animated films.
The consistency throughout the three films is largely due to the vision of writer/director Dean DeBlois. Getting his start in the hallowed halls of Disney animation, he was Head of Story on Mulan and the co-creator of Lilo & Stitch (which happens to be one of my favorite animated films ever). He also directed a documentary for epic post-rock band Sigur Ros, further cementing how great his taste is. Each How to Train Your Dragon movie works beautifully as a stand-alone and tied together as a trilogy. The Hidden World truly felt like a satisfying way to end the trilogy and put a nice bow on the folklore within.
The How to Train Your Dragon series does not hit me nostalgically; it reached theaters during my college years, so I don’t have the same emotional attachment that was obviously affecting others around me in the packed theater. If you were young enough (or had young enough children) to remember the excitement of seeing the first one in theaters, you will probably cry. But regardless of how invested you are in this series, The Hidden World is well worth seeing on the big screen.