Astrid and Hiccup.
The big-screen animated sequels of the past two years are running on the steam of once-original ideas. Perhaps I was jaded by the incredibly high expectations created by the first two films—which were defining films of my childhood—but the How to Train Your Dragon (HTTYD) threequel was underscored by disappointment. While not without spectacular graphics, a grand score, highly emotional scenes and moments of refreshingly original hilarity, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World suffered from cringe-worthy banter and a plodding pace.
In a bold choice, The Hidden World opens with an action scene set on a foggy dock instead of Hiccup’s traditional “this is Berk...” monologue; in both the first and second installments of the HTTYD trilogy, Hiccup, in Canadian voice actor Jay Baruchel’s sweetly adolescent and bookish voice, framed the film’s narrative as his own account: a fantastical tale of dragons told through the eyes of a witty prodigy disenchanted with society. The Hidden World immediately distinguishes itself from its predecessors—but not necessarily for the better. This new opening is not creative or innovative enough to warrant deviation from the meaningful tradition, making for an unnecessarily off-putting sequence.
This opening scene also suffers from an element that plagues the rest of the film: poorly-written comedic dialogue. While original witty banter was a noted strength of the first installment, often serving to express Hiccup’s disgruntledness and nuanced position within his family and Berkian culture, much of the dialogue in this film intended to invoke laughter simply does not succeed. The majority of jokes stand in for obvious reactions of characters observing things happening around them or they are generic rom-commy jests that only older demographics would understand. The story at the heart of this film is solid: Hiccup seeks to save dragons from a sadistic dragon-killer by searching for a dragon utopia, while Toothless romantically pursues the only other known Night Fury in existence. Sadly, partially as a result of the film’s distractingly poor dialogue, the audience struggles to grasp the basics of the plot.
The film, intended to be an emotional tale about growing up and letting go, certainly offers tear-worthy scenes and some truly hilarious moments. The “first date” scene between Toothless and the Light Fury offers a hysterical look at failed draconian courtship, with Hiccup starring as Toothless’s hapless wingman. The scene is skillfully timed, flows naturally, and is simply a joy to watch.
However, even this dating scene—a refreshing break from the insufferable humor and barely-decipherable plot—relies on nostalgia from the first film. I found myself drawing comparisons with the “princess scene” of last year’s Ralph Breaks the Internet. This heavily-advertised sequence relies on audiences’ affection for pre-existing properties and tropes but is probably the most truly entertaining part of the film. One must ask whether these scenes are truly entertaining on their own merits, or are simply enjoyable thanks to their reliance on old material. In this scene, John Powell’s enchanting xylophonic score compliments Toothless’s antics as he draws in the sand of a Nordic lake grotto with a tree branch—sound familiar? Still, watching “the unholy offspring of lightning and death itself ” completely fail to impress a girl just makes for incredible fun. We’ll let this scene slide.
On the subject of the Light Fury, while she might be gracefully animated and designed, her definitive role in the plot is not clear until the film’s climax. For a character so integral to pushing the plot forward, the lack of clarity around the Light Fury’s origins and her lack of personality make her unengaging. She exists in this movie to be dated or hunted, sometimes at the same time. Furthermore, the ambiguity of the Light Fury’s role only convolutes the plot. Insufficient information about a character does not always create an intriguing mystery, here only resulting in confusion. Indeed, if not for America Ferrera’s Astrid and Kristen Wiig’s Ruffnut, this film would undoubtedly fail the Bechdel Test. Frankly, it might still fail. I do not remember two female characters ever talking to one another.
The sluggish plot and jokes designed for older viewers raise a major question: what audience is The Hidden World really aiming for? Dreamworks has traditionally targeted younger audiences and their ticket-buying parents. In light of the movie’s sophisticated, broader theme of growing up, however, it is hard to imagine a young child fully appreciating this film.
This is not to say that the film is devoid of anything for smart teenagers and adults to enjoy. The villain, essentially a thinner version of the last movie’s, is quite scary in his own right. There are politically-minded-millennial-triggering moments that border on condemnations of authoritarians and American isolationism. The final ten minutes are so stuffed with emotional landmines that it feels as if the creators of Up were involved. I did cry. I also cried listening to The Hidden World soundtrack by itself right after arriving home from the theater. We mere mortals are not worthy of this score. Give John Powell his Oscar!
The directorial team of Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders are clearly capable of making superlative animated films. The first film in the series, How to Train Your Dragon, is arguably one of the best animated movies of the last decade, and perhaps of all time, thanks to its emotional, less-is-more, classically-cinematic approach. But this latest installment in this trilogy seems to have made the same mistake as most modern animated films: even the most stunning, exhaustively-detailed graphics cannot compensate for poor writing or a half-baked story.
Bowman is an English and History Freshman.
PC: DreamWorks Animation