There are moments in the “How to Train Your Dragon” series so beautifully realized, so attuned to the joys of flight and to nuances of light and shadow, that it’s worth wondering why the movies themselves never quite achieve your full surrender.
I speak only for myself, of course. Your personal dragon-riding mileage may vary, especially if this DreamWorks animated cycle’s $1 billion-plus in global box-office receipts is any indication. In the case of “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” a third and presumably final chapter from the writer-director Dean DeBlois, it is hard not to choke up at the prospect of a poignant farewell and equally hard not to wish that the individual elements soared as consistently as advertised.
Perhaps the highs feel so stirring, in part, because they are surrounded by so much conventional din and clatter. To reach those lovely, near-wordless scenes of intimate communion between the young Viking leader Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his black-scaled companion, Toothless, you have to endure a few inscrutably busy action scenes and an awful lot of strained, obnoxious banter among Hiccup’s many, many friends. Since we’ve reached the end of a trilogy, couldn’t at least one of them have been incinerated or taken a fatal tumble along the way? The “Dragon” movies may aspire to be a PG-rated “Game of Thrones,” but that’s no reason to eliminate life-and-death stakes from the equation.
Which is not to say that these pictures have been devoid of tragedy. Starting with the original 2010 adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s novel, Hiccup’s coming-of-age journey has been suffused with loss, and steadily paved with reminders that pain and growth go hand-in-hand. In 2014’s “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” the darkest picture in the cycle, he lost his beloved father, Stoick the Vast (Gerard Butler), and succeeded him as chieftain of Berk, their island home. Under Hiccup’s leadership, this enclave of former dragon hunters has become a community of dragon lovers.
As “The Hidden World” opens, Hiccup and his people have perhaps taken their dream of long-term coexistence past the limits of what is reasonable. Their habit of liberating their fire-breathing friends from hunters’ ships and bringing them home has turned Berk into the world’s “first Viking-dragon utopia,” though no one is rude enough to call it an infestation. Berk has since become a target for new villains like Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a fearsome dragon slayer determined to kill Toothless, the last of a rare breed of alpha dragons called Night Furies.
The intensity of Grimmel’s determination — he has his own fleet of brainwashed, acid-spewing behemoths to do his murderous bidding — sends Hiccup in search of a permanent new refuge for his fellow Berkians, humans and dragons alike. And so the entire village sets out in search of “the hidden world,” a secret destination at the ends of the Earth where, as we see Stoick telling Hiccup in periodic flashbacks, all dragons first originated.
Like its predecessors, “The Hidden World” shares some pop-mythological DNA with “The Black Stallion,” “Star Wars” and a rich tradition of big-screen fantasy. If the setup and plotting feel a bit perfunctory, the longing for home, with all its suggestions of settling down, achieves a genuine resonance.
Hiccup faces a lot of pressure to marry his girlfriend, Astrid (America Ferrera), though not, of course, from the relentlessly tough-willed Astrid herself. As if to further reinforce the subliminal connection between him and his master, Toothless finds a love interest of his own, a Light Fury dragon whose sleek body is covered with ivory-white scales.
And so a tale of interspecies harmony is complicated by a bit of intra-species romance, complete with a few high-altitude love duets in which Toothless and Light Fury bring new meaning to the term “speed dating.” The pleasures of being airborne, of careening through the heavens and over picturesque stretches of land and sea, have always been central to this series’ appeal. And while the intense photorealism of the scenery has only deepened (aided once more by live-action cinematographer Roger Deakins, credited as a visual consultant), the attendant sense of wonderment feels a bit muted this time around. That may be because by now DeBlois and his skilled team of animators have made it look all too easy.
The supporting players are more crudely rendered, on both sides. The other dragons, for the most part, feel like colorful filler, equipped with all manner of inventive design curlicues — some Venus flytrap teeth here, some triceratops-like protuberances there — but little in the way of personality. That’s not such a bad thing; individualizing these critters too much might have sentimentalized the whole affair.
And if they’re far less interesting company than dragons should be, they’re still preferable to Hiccup and Astrid’s relentlessly wisecracking friends, who once again include Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), Snotlout (Jonah Hill) and Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse). One of them keeps making inappropriate hot-mom jokes about Hiccup’s warrior mother, Valka (a regal Cate Blanchett), who regrettably does not unleash her inner Galadriel in response.
These aren’t fatal missteps, but they are signs of a creative sensibility that can’t always distinguish its best material from its worst. The mixed blessing of the “How to Train Your Dragon” movies is that they have brought flickers of wit, grace and beauty to a lavish corporate enterprise without sufficiently transforming it. Passages of inspired lyricism give way to perfunctory plot turns. An epic, multiyear character arc — an ambitious thing to attempt in an animated franchise — has to compete with noisy action scenes and mirthless stabs at humor.
Sublimity and shtick, war and peace, humans and dragons — coexistence is messy! And it’s “The Hidden World’s” recognition of this simple truth, and its willingness to take it to its logical conclusion, that ultimately lifts it over the finish line. The elegiac ending is simplicity itself, a perfect close to a wondrously imperfect story.
‘How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World’
Rating: PG, for adventure action and some mild rude humor
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: In general release