Kurt Loder Movie Reviews

Movie Review: How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World

The money-minting trilogy comes to a close.

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Universal Pictures

Kids these days, what do they want? I mean seven-year-olds, eight-year-olds, down in that diminutive demographic— what are they looking for in a movie?

We can imagine a couple of things: action, obviously; snappy patter perhaps. Happily, The Hidden World—the concluding installment of the How To Train Your Dragon trilogy, which began back in 2010 and has grossed more than a billion dollars to date—has acres of action; quite a bit of it brilliant. But there's so much of it that it sometimes obscures the story, and in fact starts to become a little annoying. As for the patter, well, this is Dreamworks, not Pixar, so there's not a lot of edge. But the script, by returning director Dean DeBlois, does have some nicely turned lines, the zippiest of them allotted to a hyper-chattery character called Ruffnut, whose screwball yammering drives everybody crazy. (She's voiced by Kristen Wiig, now a master of off-the-wall and over-the-top verbal excursions.)

On the other hand, I wonder what the little nippers will make of a story that's so tolerant of kissy-face romance and so committed to marriage and even procreation—not just of the human variety, but the dragonesque as well. I don't recall being prepared to sit through this sort of thing back in my own single-digit years, but maybe the kids of today are more tolerant. How they'll feel about the movie's rather weak pulse (did it really need to be made?) and its overall willingness to be a little bit boring remains to be seen. I can't speak for all kids about these things, of course, but I'll bet I can speak for a few.

Fans who've stuck with this tale from the beginning will be familiar with the young Viking called Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his once fearsome but now disarmingly cute black dragon, Toothless. They're still resident on the remote island of Berk, a rare place where humans and dragons live together in peace, and where Hiccup, son of the late Viking chieftain Stoick the Vast, is now in charge. Also on the scene is Hiccup's once-lost but now-found mom, Valka (Cate Blanchett) and, much more important, his honey, the blonde warrior girl Astrid (America Ferrera), who yields nothing to Toothless in the area of cuteness.

This is a sunny setup, but there's a large cloud moving in—a heartless dragon hunter called Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham in fine, preening form), who's sailing the seas in a prison ship filled with captive dragons. Grimmel is searching for Toothless, who is an "alpha" dragon of considerable value. In a ploy to hijack Toothless from Hiccup, Grimmel introduces a beautiful white female dragon to…well, that's unclear at first. Initially, it would seem certain that this new dragon has some malign purpose, but before long we realize that she's only here as a love interest for Toothless. Similarly, a herd of comic-relief creatures called hobgoblins appear at first to be on the verge of playing some significant part in the story…but then never quite do. You can't help wondering if such plot stutters are the residue of last-minute tinkering with this much-delayed picture.

The Dragon franchise has always been praised for its top-of-the-line digital animation, and here it reaches a new peak. The complex interplay between background and foreground in the many action scenes, the misty light and shifting shadows, the reading of ancient maps by flickering hearth fire, the look of worn leather and sudden dragon slobber, and of course the grand sky rides featuring waves of men and dragons—all of this constitutes a single soaring achievement. (It's too bad that action sequences sometimes erupt for what might be no other reason than to hold an easily distracted kid's attention—understandable, but a little irritating for non-kids calmly tracking the tale.)

As the narrative bends toward the titular Hidden World—the ancestral home of all dragons—a wave of homiletic goop begins washing over us. We hear talk of "greedy humans," and Hiccup tells one of the dragons, "Our world doesn't deserve you yet." Suddenly we're no longer in the timeless universe of the story, but instead find ourselves stranded among the earthbound moral posturings of our own time. Why must it always be this way?

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  1. I don’t recall being prepared to sit through this sort of thing back in my own single-digit years…

    That’s because your mom turned off the TV and told you to go outside and play.

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  2. Review’s

    Really?

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  3. I and my wife are 69 and 66 and we can’t wait for the HTTYD finale.

  4. On the one hand, I loved the first HTTYD, and how awesome they made the dragons. It was interesting to see how they changed them from having the behavior of cats in the first movie, to that of dogs in the second movie. I love my dog, but cats are more individualistic, and quirky than a dog who is always up for doing whatever you want to do. I found the portrayal of dragons to be better in the first movie.

    On the other hand, I thought the story in the second movie was fantastic. It had a great libertarian bent that really resonated with my kids: When you have a super power (in this case, the alpha dragon), it is only as good as the persons controlling it. And bad people will always seek to corrupt that power for their own ends. It said a message that we cannot count on a Big Protector to make us free- we instead need to take on that responsibility for ourselves. No doubt this wasn’t what the writers intended, but like the borg in Star Trek, sometimes the writers have to acquiesce to reality when looking for a villain.

    On the other, mutant third hand, I fully expected the blather about the evil of humans in the third movie. It has always been a trope from the other movies, overshaddowed by the larger plots. This is the mess that gets created when writers try to fight a natural plot with their philosophical nonsense. (Cont’d)

    1. In many ways, the first movie was an allegory to the Iraq war. The people of Burke were attacked, yes, but they continued to fuel the fires of conflict by trying to invade the dragon’s nest. There, they find that the dragons themselves are not bad, but rather slaves to a tyrant (the queen) who rules them with threat of death. The invasion quickly turns into a costly debacle that threatens to kill all the humans. Only by bridging the divide between dragons and humans are they able to cast off the tyrant and live in peace. The message is clear- running in and smashing things may seem the most straight forward solution, but until we truly understand the “enemy”, we are basically going into the situation blind.

      Like the borg in Star Trek, this would have been a great place to end things, but they needed to add a new plot. And like the queen borg, the writers are introducing another theme that just doesn’t fit with the tight narrative they started. They have been introducing this tension between the “natural” world and the world of humans. Of course, the latter is generally bad, and the former somehow noble. Like most “Noble Savage” tropes, the theme never survives scrutiny. We are supposed to look deeply and compare ourselves to a dragon society that is rigidly heirarchical? Where the mightiest gets to rule? Where the supplicants must barely subsist while providing for a tyrant?

      I haven’t seen the 3rd movie, but if it continues this trend, it will be a pity.

      1. For all my negativity in my post below, I have to say that I enjoyed the first one. Second one started to be much more DreamWorks like.

      2. “On the one hand…”
        “On the other hand…”
        “On the gripping hand…”

        Is the proper usage. (from the sequel to “The Mote in God’s Eye” by Larry Niven called “The Gripping Hand” which turn of phrase is a significant plot point.)

      3. “Like the borg in Star Trek, this would have been a great place to end things” ? Yes, as is so often the case. But Hollywood is chock-a-block with artistes who (a) think the height of creativity is to reproduce what was just done, and (b) have no idea what it means to say “once is enough”. And so, nothing ends at the great place and movies that were enjoyable for what they were are dragged kicking and screaming into the world of GREAT MEANING, and become totally incomprehensible and joyless by the end. Why? Because that’s how they roll, baby. And as long as the bucks keep coming in, they ain’t gonna stop.

  5. Why must it always be this way? Easy – because it’s DreamWorks.

    DreamWorks movies almost always have lecturing and condescending progressive dialog and story lines.

    As opposed to Pixar which almost always has profound universal points to make without a hint of lecturing sermons. Plus, Pixar movies commonly have a libertarian tinge to them.

    In my opinion, Pixar is brilliant. DreamWorks tends toward typical leftist propaganda for kids.

  6. “Why must it always be this way?”

    Because movieland is dominated by leftist SJWs who think that everything they do must be a messaging vehicle and therefore are by definition incapable of simply telling a simple story. (Their rationale of course is that every story has a message whether explicit or not, so one might as well make the message explicit.) They destroy everything they touch.

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  9. DreamWorks movies almost always have lecturing and condescending progressive dialog and story lines.

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