As a parenting tool, I like to call the How to Train Your Dragon entries background viewing. They’re easy to put on as a distraction, awash in bright colors and lovely design, and easy to dip in and out of without missing very much. Even during the screening, I felt free to leave my seat and get a refill at the fountain. On the way, I overheard a woman being escorted out of What Men Want. She had laughed so hard that she passed out. Due to the film in question, this sounded suspect, but her friend made a convincing impersonation of her friend passing out, so I believed them. I wondered if I went to the wrong film. How to Train Your Dragon didn’t make me pass out, but the heartfelt ending to the trilogy made me smile.
Animated trilogies are tough to make this consistent too. Toy Story did it right but is revoking its Trilogy pass this summer, as it moves into greedy Tetralogy territory. You want three movies. It just makes good sense, just as a story has three acts and design utilizes a rule-of-threes. It’s the magic number. Many series falter by this point. How to Train Your Dragon persists, gassing and huffing across the finish line with a bit of excess perspiration. Lovely as they are for Dreamworks pictures, these never had the story demands to fulfill the need for sequel treatments. They get by on spectacle – the pure joy of weightlessness they inspire – floating on a dragon’s back and getting immersed in their colorful Viking settlements. The Hidden World features two distinct moments where the franchise soars, to unlikely artistic fulfillment, casting doubt on why the rest of the film is as limp as it is, or maybe they want to end the trilogy and make something this artful now? The rest is confectionery enough to pull through the dull beats and get to the big ethereal wonder this film occasionally reaches. Eye candy for kids is not a terrible result but is not a noble aspiration either.
That’s why there is more obvious messaging now. Like Toy Story 3 (2010), this is a definite end of something, a story about letting go. This property has grown with you and is going to tell a vaguely more mature story while still ensuring it will gain traction with the new set of youngsters. This is about pleasing everyone and so it does not fully please anyone. It has a pertinent idea for young kids of today. In a world full of hate, where are you allowed to live solely out of love and companionship? That has always been the appeal – to turn Vikings into Dragon loving saps and that still pushes the right buttons.
The three-arc coming of age story is on its way out. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) has trained his dragon, Toothless (the franchise resembles this name), and has created a wonderful island colony where Vikings and Dragons live in peace. Our awkward hero’s getting married to his sweetheart Astrid (America Ferrera) and all is in harmony. The time of peace is thrown into disarray by the dastardly Grimmal (F. Murray Abraham). There is the mythologized Hidden World where everyone can live in idealized peace together. It’s all low impact stuff and a nice milquetoast way to go out.
Our children must wonder, is there really a safe haven in America? Their world looks dangerous and the leaders probably seem like comic book villains, they certainly talk like ne’er-do-wells up to nefarious schemes cooked up in some volcanic underground lair. It’s nice to imagine for a moment that growth results in finding comfort in letting go. That they will all grow to find love and a safe space where they can live with free will and expression. Maybe not in America, just at the movie theater.