The How to Train Your Dragon series began with a young Viking boy stumbling upon an injured dragon known as a Night Fury. Instead of killing the dragon, Hiccup befriends the creature, names it Toothless, and in doing so, changes the relationship between Vikings and dragons forever.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the third and theoretically final installment, again lets the consequences of the characters’ decisions play out, even when they’re not exactly pretty. If you recall: Hiccup loses a leg in the first movie and wears a prosthetic for the rest of the trilogy; Hiccup’s father Stoick dies midway through the second movie, leaving Hiccup as chief of the village of Berk; and at the end of the sequel, Berk opens its doors to all dragons as a safe haven.
The Hidden World is a big “what if?” after Hiccup saves the day in Dragons 2, focusing less on a specific villain than the societal clashes of humans and dragons living together in the same world. We do get a bad guy (Grimmel, a dragon hunter who lives for the thrill of the chase), but evil plots don’t drive the airbound action movie to its conclusion. Instead, The Hidden World is a culmination of choices made over the past three movie that results in thrills, tears, and an emotional payoff that resonates.
[Ed. note: This article contains some spoilers for How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World.]
In the threequel, Hiccup and his friends eagerly rescue and welcome dragons into Berk, but every time they return from their mission with a trove of new dragons, Berk gets a bit more crowded, the giant “Here Be Dragons” target on its back growing a bit more obvious to dragon hunters. After a particularly disastrous attack by Grimmel, Hiccup realizes that as long as Berk continues to welcome dragons, they’re a sitting target. But Berk — like, say, Thor: Ragnarok’s version of Asgard — isn’t about location; it’s about people. So starry-eyed Hiccup decides that they must relocate to a place on the edge of the world where dragons originated, and the Vikings of Berk can live with the creatures in peace.
No one else quite believes that this hidden world (get it?) exists, but they do agree that evacuating the village is the best course of action.
With more dragons, more locations, and technology that can push the designs to new bounds, the flying sequences — pivotal in the Dragons franchise — are more exciting than ever (and, frankly, seeing a whole armada of dragons is just cool). Vikings now incorporate their dragons into their fighting styles. Hiccup’s mother Valka favors a stealthy approach, while braggart Snotlout takes on a more bombastic style, a reminder of the distinct character physicalities of How to Train Your Dragon’s characters. This is a franchise in which women have notably different face designs: While Astrid does falls into the traditional round face, small nose, the designs of the other prominent female characters — Valka and Ruffnut — offset it. It’s rare.
Speaking of female characters, Toothless meets a very sleek and polished lady dragon dubbed the Light Fury. Yes, she’s Toothless’s designated love interest, but also represents a call of the wild, a reminder that while the dragons have learned to live among the humans, the human world is not theirs. She might look just like a white and sparkly recolor of Toothless — which brought up some criticism when her design was first revealed — but dang it, if she isn’t adorable.
The scene where Toothless and the Light Fury court among the clouds, twirling together in flight, is particularly captivating. The dragons romance each other in an aerial dance, with a swirling thunderstorm as a backdrop. It’s one of the best flight sequences in the whole trilogy, finishing off with Toothless and the Light Fury gently touching wings as they cruise over the ocean.
The Dragon movies have always trusted their younger viewers to pick up on mature messages; both Toothless and Hiccup grow up over the course of the trilogy and this final chapter cements that they must do so without each other. But in Hidden World, it’s a little tiring to see another coming-of-age arc tied to romantic relationships, with Astrid around for emotional support and the Light Fury essentially servicing as a manic pixie dream dragon.
Still, the culmination of these relationships packs an emotional wallop. There are homages to the first movie, and in the end, when a climactic scene summons and soars with the original musical theme, one can’t help but feel a little tug on the heartstrings.
Up there with the Toy Story films, How to Train Your Dragon is an animated movie saga that sticks the landing without doling out obvious happy endings. (We’ll see what happens with Toy Story 4.) Instead, the trilogy’s ending is one, that like the rest of the series, questions the coexistence of two species and the conflict between idealism and reality, and ultimately, is about growing up and making tough decisions.
The saga finishes in a bittersweet yet ultimately fulfilling way. But not to fear, those susceptible to tears — there is one final, indulgent scene after the crux of the finale that makes the bittersweetness a bit more bearable.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is now in theaters.