REVIEWS: The ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ Trilogy

It’s time for another full franchise or filmmaker review. Today, I’m taking a look back at the well-renowned animated movie trilogy of How To Train Your Dragon-films, which I, believe it or not, had never seen before I started writing this article. Just like with my single article film series review of the Mission: Impossible films, you’ll find reviews of each of the three How To Train Your Dragon-films in this one article. Do note that there may be some spoilers in the three reviews.

How to Train Your Dragon – 2010 – Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders

When How to Train Your Dragon was released, I was sixteen years old, and I probably had this foolish idea in my head that animated movies were behind me. I probably ignored its release because I thought it was a film for kids, while I, at the same time, was probably stubborn about not wanting to be addressed as a child. I don’t know. I, honestly, don’t remember why I never saw this film, but when the sequels would be released I always feared that I was missing out on something excellent. But, this year, I decided to watch this trilogy, which I’ve never seen before. I’m glad I finally watched it. How to Train Your Dragon is a spectacular and wonderful animated movie.

Based on the 2003 Cressida Cowell book series of the same name, How to Train Your Dragon is a film about a character who doesn’t fit in. The thin Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the son of a mighty Viking warrior, has a tough time living up to the standards of his home. He is not the dragon-killing Viking warrior that his father wants him to be. So when he, one fine morning, runs into a feared Night Fury dragon, he should fear for his life. However, Hiccup and the dragon he eventually refers to as Toothless become great, unlikely friends. This relationship teaches Hiccup that their ways are wrong and that there are other ways to deal with dragons than to fight them, much to the disappointment of his father and the Viking world.

I thought How to Train Your Dragon was absolutely terrific. The breezy introduction lured me into making assumptions that were not ultimately true. This isn’t an overpraised, generic animated movie. This isn’t just another Pixar’s Brave. I think the moment that it truly hit me that I was watching a fantastic animated film was when Hiccup finally got the chance to fly. This is a well-expressed story with awe-inspiring cinematography. The incredibly well-designed flying scenes are spectacular and wonderful and they took my breath away.

Aided by an exceptional original score from John Powell, this is a beautiful movie with a loving relationship between a boy and his pet at the center of it. I was not prepared for how heartwarming the scene where Hiccup first touches Toothless’ snout was. I also loved how they animated the dragons. They all have these distinct and different designs that are all either witty, creepy, or gorgeous. I love how the dragons move. The animators really understood how to make them move like cats or dogs and it made you feel attached to Toothless.

Where How to Train Your Dragon, conversely, didn’t work as well for me, though, was with the human characters. I think the character-specific animation leaves something to be desired. I think many characters would’ve benefitted from a glossier design. As a Scandinavian, it actually did bother me, in moments, that the so-called Vikings speak with thick Scottish accents, even though I, admittedly, really enjoyed Gerard Butler’s voice acting in the film. Finally, I think some of the characters are indistinguishable from one another and the film should’ve defined and developed some of its characters better.

Nevertheless, Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders’ How to Train Your Dragon, frankly, blew me away. It is a heartwarming and charming ‘a boy and his dog’-film that tells a wonderful and truly thrilling story about family and understanding. It is easily one of the best DreamWorks Animation films that I’ve ever seen.

8.8 out of 10

How to Train Your Dragon 2 – 2014 – Dean DeBlois

One of the things that struck me the most with How to Train Your Dragon 2 was how it had made a conscious decision to mature its characters alongside its audience. The sequel is dramatically deeper than its predecessor, the characters are wiser, the narrative is not as simple and the film is not afraid of going in directions that would not have been suitable for the first film.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 takes place five years after the events of the first film, where, at the beginning of the film, Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is being prepared to succeed his father as the village’s chieftain. Hiccup, like last time, doesn’t think that life is for him. He’s obsessed with completing a detailed map of the world. While out flying, he discovers a group of dragon-traders who work for a dangerous mad man known as Drago Bludvist (voiced by Djimon Hounsou) who hopes to control an entire army of dragons. As Hiccup’s father (voiced by Gerard Butler) prepares for war with Drago, Hiccup leaves his village to talk Drago out of the war, but, on his way there, he is ambushed by a masked dragon-rider who can give him something he has been missing his entire life.

With this sequel, Dean DeBlois has taken the simplified but spellbinding origin of the first film and given new depth to the world. In doing so, he has clearly borrowed a lot from Star Wars, in particular, but, like the first film, his film also reminded me of Harry Potter in moments. From a certain point of view, this is a film about growing up and accepting responsibility. But there is so much more to it than that and, even though the film becomes slightly confused or rushed from time to time, I really appreciated that.

In many, but not all, ways, How to Train Your Dragon 2 is a great improvement. One of these is in the animation style. Characters have grown up and the character designs reflect that, but it is more than that. In comparison, the animation designs in the first film almost seem dated. This film, though much more busy than the first film, is every bit as magical as its predecessor. The opening flying scene with Hiccup and Toothless is, honestly, majestic.

But the film certainly isn’t perfect. For one, I think the sequel’s antagonist is underwritten. He is essentially just a power-hungry mad man whose backstory is hinted at without actually being well-told. The narrative also feels slightly rushed and overly fast-paced in moments. Most alarmingly, I have some issue with the message of the film. Yes, this is a film about respecting our pets and being kind to them. But the film is also about control.

“Good dragons under the control of bad people do bad things.”

The film openly argues that dragons, or pets, are only dangerous, or bad, if they are controlled, or raised, by bad people. That’s true, sure. However, it is easy to interpret lines like the one above as gun lobby propaganda. Ultimately, however, I don’t think that was DeBlois’ intent, but I thought select lines were troubling considering how A Song of Ice and Fire-author George R. R. Martin has previously compared dragons to nuclear weaponry. So, I don’t think it’s a stretch to interpret the line above as a message about firearms, even if it was not designed for that purpose.

DeBlois would probably argue that the aforementioned line is about animal cruelty and that, perhaps, the film argues against groupthink. I don’t think that is a stretch either, though, so while the film leaves itself open to being misconstrued, the film definitely isn’t about weaponry, even if the line above can be read as propaganda. I’d ultimately say some of the dialogue is dangerously imprecise.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 is an evolution for the trilogy. This sequel is leaps and bounds more ambitious than the wonderful first film. Dean DeBlois’ solo outing wears its inspirations proudly and deepens the mythology of the world. Characters are expanded upon, the animation is perfected with the earthly elements and colors being improved significantly and the character designs appearing more glossy as I had hoped they would be. However, I do have some noteworthy problems with the writing and pacing of the film, so I cannot quite say it improves completely on the first film. That said, it is yet another terrific adventure film from DreamWorks Animation, which, after having seen the first two films, I’m, honestly, very impressed by.

8.5 out of 10

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World – 2019 – Dean DeBlois

The following review does include a spoiler-filled discussion of the end of the film.

If you had told me in 2011 or 2012 that I would be damn near sobbing at the end of the third and final How to Train Your Dragon-film, I’m not sure I would’ve believed you. But that is the reality of the situation. I’m really glad I decided to check out these films this week. As you’ll learn later in this review, it became somewhat of a cathartic experience for me. I never expected to be as emotionally attached to a film series where the protagonist is named something as inherently silly as ‘Hiccup,’ but here we are.

The Hidden World takes place one year after the events of How to Train Your Dragon 2, at which point we meet up with Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), Astrid (voiced by America Ferrera), Toothless, and the rest of the dragons and Vikings of Berk. Berk is being overcrowded due to the vast number of dragons that they have saved from dragon-trappers. Hiccup does not want to stop saving dragons, so he decides that it would be better for them all to relocate to the mystical, legendary dragon home known as ‘the hidden world.’

Meanwhile, however, the dragon hunter Grimmel (voiced by F. Murray Abraham) has been hired to capture and kill Toothless, who he is trying to lure by using a female Night Fury that Astrid later refers to as a ‘Light Fury.’ As Toothless falls in love with the Light Fury, the Vikings are trying to convince Hiccup to settle down and marry Astrid. In The Hidden World, our heroes have the chance to spread their wings, but, in doing so, they may have to say some goodbyes.

The Hidden World is far more simple than its ambitious predecessor. The film’s intentions are indicated pretty early on and the story is fairly predictable, but it is a testament to the animation and some of the characters and their relationships that this was never boring. Hiccup and Astrid’s interactions are sweet and fun, and it definitely does feel like DeBlois wanted this film to be both an epic conclusion, a bittersweet farewell, and a nostalgic and comforting ‘hang out-movie.’ And it really is. It works.

The trilogy-capper does have some issues, though. For one, I think this film is needlessly silly and spends too much time on side-characters whose character trait basically is that they are annoying. Instead of continuing to flesh out the character voiced by Cate Blanchett, who had an interesting arc in the second film, The Hidden World gives multiple scenes to another Viking who, even though he is the same age as Hiccup, desires Hiccup’s mother. Time and time again, the film returns to the increasingly irritating Thorston-twins.

Though the film does throw in lines that indicate that the antagonist is a blatant racist, Grimmel isn’t as developed as he needed to be. F. Murray Abraham is perfectly fine in the role, but the antagonist, much like in the previous film, is lackluster. Finally, the film failed to convince me of the argument that the dragons and the Vikings cannot exist together in harmony at the end of the film.

What does work, however, is what Hiccup says towards the end. Dragons are too pure and magical for humanity. Dragons are too good and humanity is impure. The Hidden World is a film about letting those you love spread their wings, acceptance, and letting go. But it’s also a story about man-made wars and disagreements standing in the way of magic, nature, and the blessings of our world.

The film’s epilogue is incredible and moved me deeply. I watched these films over the course of two days, but I had tears rushing down my face by the end of the trilogy. Maybe it was because of how attached I had become to the characters, but it may also have been due to the film’s theme of letting go of those you love. In the film, Hiccup has to learn to say goodbye to his best friend. Earlier this year, I had to say goodbye to one of my family’s dogs and his twin sibling is still getting older. I was a mess when we had to say goodbye to our dog this year. This movie really got through to me. It allowed for a cathartic release, so to speak. The epilogue also continues to appreciate that its audience is growing older. The film is, from a certain perspective, about the need for love, but it is also about building a home for yourself.

After spending some time watching the closing credits with tears rushing down my face, I noticed a familiar name listed as a visual consultant. Again, I had never watched any of these films before. I had almost unconsciously ignored the film series. Somehow I had missed the fact that the extraordinary cinematographer Roger Deakins had worked on all three How to Train Your Dragon-films as a visual consultant.

It, honestly, makes a lot of sense in retrospect. Having now seen all three films, I can say that these films are some of the most visually awe-inspiring and captivating animated films that I’ve ever seen. Even with an inferior animated look in the first film, they had these wild and magical flying scenes, but, as the series moved forward and the animation was glossed and sharpened, Deakins’ eye for incredible visuals shone through. The Hidden World — the eponymous world, but also the film as a whole — is stunning. The way shadows move, colors shine, and the scenes in which Toothless flies with the Light Fury are all outstanding and breathtaking.

Though the trilogy-capper is probably the weakest of the three films, I am of the opinion that Dean DeBlois’ How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World stuck the landing as it gave its audience a bittersweet but incredibly moving conclusion to one of the best animated film trilogies ever made. I’m a fan.

8 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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