Of all the memorable moments to come out of DreamWorks’s near-perfect original “How to Train Your Dragon,” the one most likely to jump to someone’s mind at the mention of the film is the flying sequence. In all of twenty-first century animation, there have been few scenes that managed to match the majesty of those first moments when Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, “Man Seeking Woman”) first climbed atop Toothless and soared through the air, skimming the water, whooping with the sort of contagious joy that classic movie moments are made of. The storytelling, the score, the Deakins-inspired visual — it all came together for a moment of complete moviemaking synergy.
The miracle of “The Hidden World” is that it might actually surpass that magical original flight. As the inhabitants of the dragon-friendly utopia Berk flee from an armada of dragon hunters, we watch as Toothless begins a courtship with a female variant of his species: the “Light Fury” to his “Nightfury.” To call these scenes beautiful or gorgeous or any of the descriptors I usually attach to artistic styles would be a severe understatement. I’d rank them near “Fantasia” in terms of how perfectly they tell a story with nothing but visuals and John Powell’s (“Solo: A Star Wars Story”) unbelievable score.
Part of the key to their strength is in how they’re rendered mostly in close-ups allowing for a couple different things. Obviously it’s easier to appreciate how state-of-the-art the animation is at a closer distance — you can actually see the reflection of other people in the characters’ eyes, which is a level of detail so insane that some live-action films can’t even match. More importantly, though, it allows the characters to speak for themselves, even effectively mute ones like Toothless and the Light Fury. Matt Reeves took advantage of a similar idea in “War for the Planet of the Apes” — if the effects are good enough and the character is expressive enough, a simple close-up can tell us exactly what they’re feeling without having to use a single word of dialogue. The result isn’t just something that’s aesthetically pleasing to look at; it’s a much more intimate feeling relationship than we’re used to seeing in an animated film. Even “WALL-E” made use of limited dialogue in its love story.
The rest of the film is fine, even if it occasionally struggles to match those epic heights. Hiccup’s arc sees him having to confront the reality that his time with Toothless might be coming to the end, and while that’s certainly an emotional way to close out the trilogy, it’s never given enough time to develop, especially because the third act begins and moves from the midpoint of the story to the climax to the resolution so quickly it’s hard to digest any of it. It’s strange to say, especially as someone usually hasty to criticize movies for overstaying their welcome, but if “The Hidden World” was even just five to ten minutes longer, it would allow for more development for Hiccup and his struggle without sacrificing any of the time we spend with Toothless and the Light Fury. It’s the conclusion of a critically acclaimed trilogy, DreamWorks! Treat yourself!
Yet, even this is born partially of a desire to spend more time in this world: the world of Berk, the world of its people, the world of dragons. Over three movies — and several TV series I admittedly haven’t watched — DreamWorks has developed a stupendous cast of characters brought to life in bold stories with animation that never ceases to be striking, and “The Hidden World” stands as a resolutely solid ending. It’s an achievement, and I think I can safely say the “How to Train Your Dragon” trilogy will be one that parents and children will watch together for years to come. When they do, I hope they cherish their time in Berk as dearly as I have.