Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Review: "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World"

One of the hardest lessons in life to absorb is that everything has a beginning, a middle and an end -- especially the last part.

Knowing when to close the door on a thing is a test many of us fail, especially when it has been something that has brought joy and meaning to our life. A relationship, a job, a creative partnership -- often we hold on longer than we should, and thereby taint the last chapter of the journey.

The “How to Train Your Dragon” series has quietly been one of -- if not the -- finest animated franchises in cinematic history. It caps that stature by definitively wrapping things up with a satisfying finale that draws a closed circle on a saga about striving beyond our limitations.

Starting with the smart and sensitive 2010 movie based on the books by Cressida Cowell about a teen Viking who befriends the dragons that have been plaguing his village for generations, the “Dragon” tale has sprawled across three feature films, four short films and eight seasons of a TV series, first on Cartoon Network and then moving to Netflix.

All this, in less than a decade.

Film-to-television crossovers are often notoriously bad, but “Dragons: Race to the Edge” and its earlier incarnation was notable for actually expanding its world without diminishing it -- not to mention retaining almost the entire original voice cast, something virtually unprecedented.

My two sons literally grew up on “Dragon” stories. At first, young Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) was a scrawny, ostracized teen seen by most as a pale copy of his father, the mighty chieftain Stoick (Gerard Butler). In “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World,” he’s a wiser, cagier -- though only slightly less scrawny -- leader who others look to for confidence.

He still often lacks it in himself. Fortunately, Astrid (America Ferrera), the fiercest warrior in the island village of Berk, is there to buck him and back him. She’s not ready to commit to marriage, though, despite the urging of the townsfolk. These include blacksmith/sage Gobber (Craig Ferguson) and Hiccup’s mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett).

If you watched the TV show, you know that Hiccup and his crew have been waging a running war with trappers looking to force the dragons into slavery. Their success, though, has left Berk literally teeming with reptilian fire-breathers from nook to cranny. Something’s got to give.

The villain this time around is Grimmel the Grisly (delightfully voiced by F. Murray Abraham), a cagey old dragon hunter who uses poison to snare and control dragons. He’s got a foursome of nasty acid-spewing deathgrippers at his beck and call.

Grimmel has his sights set on Toothless, the lone remaining night fury dragon who allied himself with Hiccup even though the boy crippled him with one of his many contraptions. Hiccup lost a leg in the first movie, so both use prosthetic devices and are codependent on each other in order to fly.

When a female white night fury is revealed -- quickly dubbed a “light fury” -- it offers the potential for some dragon romance, but also a threat to the status quo. To escape Grimmel and his ilk once and for all, Hiccup revolves to find the mythical waterfall at the end of the world his father talked about, a portal to the world where  all dragons supposedly come from.

“Hidden World” is a bit more action-centric than its two movie predecessors, with plenty of exciting mid-air battles, non-bloody melee and pyrotechnic conflagrations. But writer/director Dean DeBlois, who’s helmed all three films, makes plenty of time for contemplation and character-building.

I’m sorry to see the “How to Train Your Dragon” series go. What a ride it’s been. But I’m delighted the creators knew that it’s better to leave too early than too late.

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