Modest expectations are underappreciated. Not every film, particularly an animated one, is going to be an award winner or a megahit. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World knows exactly what it is supposed to be: a satisfying, exciting final chapter in a series that mixes comedy with action. There is no ambitious concept that you might expect from Pixar, nor are there meta-references that you might expect from The LEGO Movie or Wreck-It Ralph. Instead, The Hidden World tells its brisk story with affection, and by never overstaying its welcome, it is easier to look past the annoying bits.
The original How to Train Your Dragon and its sequel are about Berk, an island where a viking tribe lives harmoniously with dragons. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is the chief, and his passion is liberating dragons from their captors. Most dragon hunters are no match for Hiccup and his lieutenants, since each one has a corresponding dragon with considerable strength and firepower. Their success attracts the attention of Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a cunning hunter who desires Hiccup’s personal dragon, Toothless. This leads to a series of battles and escapes, with Hiccup and Grimmel attempting to outmaneuver each other.
Director Dean DeBlois, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps the plot simple enough so that young children can follow it. There is even a cute sequence where Toothless—a catlike dragon that’s all black—meets a potential mate who is all white, and they court each other through increasingly extravagant gestures. DeBlois’ primary focus is the action, and stunning animation. He makes sense of complex aerial combat, so that there is enough danger and spatial coherence to keep it genuinely thrilling. On top of that, parts of The Hidden World can be surprisingly lifelike, like when characters interact with sand or water. Other sections are impressive through the sheer level of detail. When the film finally shows us the hidden world of dragons, hundreds of them fill the frame at once. The cumulative effect forces the audience to take in the entire gorgeous canvas, instead of focusing their attention on a single image or figure.
What is less successful are all the moments in between the battles and vistas. The Hidden World has an ample supply of secondary characters, including Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) and love interest Astrid (America Ferrera). Their appearance here is perfunctory—Blanchett has maybe a dozen lines total—so most of the attention is on Hiccup’s friends, who provide the comic relief. None of them have a distinct personality; instead, they’re defined by a simple, broad caricatures. This leads to subplots that go nowhere, or awkward physical gags. Perhaps DeBlois ran out of material, padding it out instead of attempting genuine character development.
Comic discursions notwithstanding, The Hidden World preserves the emotional core of Hiccup and Toothless. Even if you haven’t seen the original two films, Toothless is still a delightful creature, more like an overly friendly pet than a fire-breathing lizard. He and Hiccup have parallel story arcs, so the way they are simultaneously resolved adds a greater emotional resonance. The first film came out in 2010, so kids who grew up on these films are old enough to appreciate the wisdom that comes with maturity and letting go. These scenes are deftly handled, with DeBlois avoiding the easiest choices, so the comic missteps are easier to forgive.
The Hidden World is admirably brisk. It runs at just over 90 minutes, ensuring that audiences of any age will not lose their patience (albeit for different reasons). And its final, bittersweet moments are an appropriate coda for a story about friendship and acceptance. No kid will ever have a pet like Toothless, but this film may show them the rewards of embracing someone because of their differences, not in spite of them.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World opens Friday in theaters everywhere.