Of all the oddly specific sub-genres out there my personal favourite is, without a doubt, the “boy and his (insert strange creature that they befriend here)” coming-of-age film. In these films a child, usually a boy but sometimes a girl, finds a strange fantasy or science-fiction creature that is not of this world who they form an unlikely bond with.
It’s a sub-genre whose catalogue includes great films like E.T the Extra-Terrestrial, Pete’s Dragon and Flight of the Navigator. Whole franchises are built out of it; the Pokémon movies the live-action Transformers (especially the recent Bumblebee) are just two examples. If I had to choose a personal favourite it would be The Iron Giant. If I had to choose a second favourite it would be 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon.
I often cite the original How to Train Your Dragon as the perfect film. It introduced us to the dragon hunting world of Berk— the kind of beautiful high-fantasy world that captures the imagination of children (and more than a few adults). We watch as our protagonist, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), finds a befriends Toothless, a ‘Night Fury’ dragon. The two form a powerful friendship, save the day, and put an end to dragon hunting.
The secret to what made How to Train Your Dragon so strong was its simplicity. By focusing in on Hiccup and Toothless, it made a story that is unoriginal on paper fresh and invigorating. It allowed for How to Train Your Dragon 2 to be a bolder, broader sequel that expanded upon the world of the original and explored new ideas.
You couldn’t say that these films were set in the How to Train Your Dragon universe exactly, because these were stories that were unique to this world. Many versions of this story exist, but only the How to Train Your Dragon films could blend the themes of coming-of-age with broader concepts like coexistence with nature and acceptance of loss exactly like this.
I talk about all this only because the third and (probably) final How to Train Your Dragons films – subtitled: The Hidden World – is the first to feel like it’s telling a story that is not unique to this world. All good “boy and his x” stories ultimately involve the boy and his other-worldly creature friend eventually parting ways. E.T went home, the Iron Giant sacrificed himself, and How to Train Your Dragon is no different.
Those who have watched the trailers will know that the Hidden World is not different, “There were dragons, when I was a boy”, says Hiccup in the first trailer. You will also know that The Hidden World introduces a ‘Light Fury’, the female counterpart for Toothless. Much of film focuses on their budding romance; a subplot which for spoiler reasons was marketed poorly. In the film it’s a far more complicated situation than a simple “boy meets girl”.
However, The Hidden World is not just a romance film. It’s also a chase film, buddy film, and fantasy-adventure film that wraps up the trilogy but also leaves it open to sequels in case DreamWorks decides that they want to make more. If you think that all that sounds like a lot for one film to handle, maybe even too much, you would be right.
The Hidden World is a film being pulled in too many directions, and with a runtime of only 104 minutes, there’s just not enough space for it to tell all the stories it wants to. Many characters are left with storylines that feel half-baked or incomplete. Some will have beginnings, other’s endings, but rarely is there both, and it doesn’t matter anyway because the middles are so muddled.
I suspect that writer-director Dean Deblois was aware of these narrative shortcomings because visually The Hidden World is the most self-assured of all the How to Train Your Dragon films. The action is kinetic, the world lush, and the flying scenes have never made me want to overcome my fear of heights more.
Yet, The Hidden World never fully takes flight as a story. It lingers in on odd insignificant narrative beats and rushes moments that feel important making the movie feel both underdeveloped and overlong. Characters speak in clichés and exposition because the script has too much narrative ground to cover and no room left for the quirky dialogue of the first two films.
The Hidden World has a great ending, but it doesn’t do the work to earn it. I found myself emotionally affected because of how much I love the world and characters of the first two films. In truth The Hidden World will only function if you really love the first two films.
I do. And that makes it hard to tell how much of my disappointment stems from The Hidden World’s own shortcomings, and how much is just because of how much better the first two films are. Perhaps it’s unfair to judge it against its predecessors, but The Hidden World is telling a film so indebted and interlinked with them that they’re almost impossible to separate.
As a film itself, The Hidden World struggles to take flight. But the final scenes are such a perfect conclusion to the franchise on a whole that my instinct is to overlook The Hidden World’s shortcomings. I want to focus on what’s good. Maybe that’s the wrong way to approach The Hidden World but truthfully, it’s the only way I can.
This is a franchise that has captured my heart and my imagination. I love these films, and I want the ending that’s right for them. The Hidden World is a mediocre film that also has the right ending for the franchise. Does that give it a free pass? I don’t know. But I think that has to count for something. It does for me anyway, and if you’re a fan of the films, it probably will for you too.