Nine years ago, How to Train Your Dragon became the first film to demonstrate that DreamWorks Animation could be more than The House That Shrek Built; the first film to eschew the lazy pop culture references, music cues and shticky jokes based on celebrity personae and just go out and make a rich-looking, emotionally resonant adventure that deserved to be talked of in the same breath as their estimable competitors at Pixar Animation Studios. It's almost too appealing that, at the opposite end of a decade, that film's second sequel, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, completes that journey: this isn't merely worthy of comparison to Pixar, it's flat-out better than anything Pixar has turned out in years, certainly better than anything from any other studio. It is no less than the embodiment of what 3-D CG animation is capable of right now, in characters, lighting, backgrounds, cinematography.

All of which is good enough for me, at least, though I get that it's maybe not good enough for everybody else, so it's just as well that in addition to being a technical masterpiece, The Hidden World tells a really lovely story, bringing its series to a graceful close. It's very much in the mode of HTTYD2, a film that struck me as mildly less than I wanted back in 2014, and has since risen in my esteem to be one of the finest sequels of the modern era; the third film now makes it one of the finest trilogies ever. It takes place a year after the events of the first sequel, with the vikings of the remote northern island of Berk having continued in their quest to provide a safe haven for the dragons of the world. This puts them into conflict with various dragon-hating types, most notably including a consortium of warlords from around the globe, whose attempts to form a dragon army have been thwarted by Berk's young chief Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) repeatedly. As a last-ditch effort, the warlords have hired deranged dragon hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) to take care of Hiccup and his beloved Night Fury dragon, Toothless, which the madman prepares to do with great relish.

So much for the plot, which is a little too much a retread of HTTYD2 for comfort; the plot isn't exactly the point, anyway. At least, not that part of the plot. Running in tandem with that is a much smaller, more intimate story, of how Hiccup has found himself at the point in life when the present is going along so comfortably that he doesn't want to think about the future at all, and when the future has decided to start muscling in all at once. In other words, it perfectly continues the arc built by the first two movies: where HTTYD1 is a movie about being a teenager and HTTDY2 is a movie about being in your early 20s, The Hidden World is about being in your mid-20s. On top of a good many other things; the film is also about the duty we owe to our communities, to our families, and to our partners; it is also, very subtly but importantly, about the way that human populations should interact with the natural world, proposing that it is for the best if certain wonderful spots - certain "hidden worlds", you might say - remain undisturbed and untarnished by blundering people. The ingenious thing about the film is that it knows that we walk into it pretty sure about how it's going to end, and so it lets that knowledge color everything that happens, offering a certain rich melancholic wisdom to moments that might not otherwise have it; then, in a genuinely surprising twist, it almost completely avoids simple tearjerking when the end comes, but goes for something sweeter and plainer and more nuanced.

It is, I think it's fair to say, Miyazaki-esque; the de-emphasis of a villain (but not the elimination of a villain) in favor of an internal conflict about being reluctant to do all the things one knows one must, with a strong backbone of environmentalism, could hardly help but evoke NausicaΓ€ of the Valley of the Wind or Princess Mononoke in at least the broad strokes, and The Hidden World's depiction of a high fantasy world that seems resolutely cozy and domestic fits in with those as well. Even if that comparison maybe goes a little bit too far, it's at least tapping into something more stately and self-consciously imbued with grandeur than just about any other American animated feature since the Pixar formula took over in the early 2000s. Each film in this trilogy has slightly broadened the world in which it takes place, while remaining fixed on the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless as the source of all their emotion and dramatic thrust; I don't know that I can name another franchise that even tries something like that, let alone succeeds at it.

The intimacy comes mostly from the script by Dean DeBlois, who also directs, keeping the film oriented around its character relationships (which could be tightened even more: the franchise has more or less run out of strategies for using its comic relief characters in anything resembling a satisfying way, though the nerdy Fishlegs, voiced by Christopher Mintz-Plasse, comes off pretty well this time around); the grandeur comes from the film's sumptuous visuals, which peak in the Hidden World itself, a dazzling array of kaleidoscopic colors and gargantuan geography through which the virtual camera flies in defiance of any physics that ever were. Though that's really only one scene, and there's still plenty of visual splendor on both sides of it. The series has never again approached the pure weightless joy of the flight scenes in HTTYD1, nor obviously tried to, but The Hidden World has quite a lot to offer in the form of its richly detailed atmosphere and settings: a verdant island full of thick green shadows beneath trees that almost tangibly smell of pine and loam; a foggy opening with some of the best lighting in animation history, creating a ghostly aura that collapses into noirish silhouettes for the film's first action sequence. Lighting is the particular triumph of this film - like every other movie in its franchise, it brought on the great cinematographer Roger Deakins as a consultant - with little things like the way slivers of light over-expose and great grand things like the slow progression of late afternoon into dusk both feeling just exactly perfect.

And at the center of it all once again, some of the best character animation that 3-D CGI has to offer; Toothless the dragon is, as he has always been, the pinnacle of the medium: adorably designed with vividly pantomimed expressions and emotions, capable of tremendously detailed acting that's refined enough to feel like art, simple enough that even a child could get it. Which is of course the point; these are, when all is said and done, children's movies. But brilliantly realised, emotionally involving, philosophically layered children's movies, rich with world-building, full of epic storytelling tropes that never overwhelm the basic character arcs at the center of it all. It has been one of the most rewarding series in contemporary cinema, and one of the vanishingly few that has dropped barely any of its quality as it comes in for a landing.

Reviews in this series
How to Train Your Dragon (DeBlois & Sanders, 2010)
How to Train Your Dragon 2 (DeBlois, 2014)
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World (DeBlois, 2019)