‘How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World’ Reaches Operatic Heights

It may sound surprising at first, but here is possibly the season’s best romance. “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” is a visual delight, a heartfelt epic about friendship and a rather sweeping love story. This is the third feature installment of a franchise beloved by kids for its high energy and endless selection of cute, fierce, winged beasts. But while it has the goofy charm of modern animation, it’s also packed with storytelling techniques as old as Nordic myth. There are vicious warlords, a king seeking marriage, hidden worlds of glorious creatures and mating dances by the shore.

Our hero Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is now a little older and still leading his Viking band who have become great dragon riders, in an isolated island community of Berk. His dream remains that one day humans and dragons can coexist. But there is a new threat in the form of vicious dragon hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) who is obsessed with capturing Hiccup’s dragon comrade and king of the dragons, Toothless. Toothless, as you may recall, is that rare dragon breed, a Night Fury. Grimmel has taken down all of the previous Night Furies and with Toothless gone, his task will be complete. But after rescuing captured dragons from a hunters’ ship, Toothless is smitten by the appearance of a Light Fury. Now Hiccup has to help Toothless get his moves down to impress Light Fury. Love is in the air, and not just among the dragons. Hiccup starts feeling the pressure for marriage, and he wonders if Astrid (America Ferrera) might be ready to tie the knot and be the Viking royal couple everyone is waiting for. But it’s hard to think about weddings when Grimmel suddenly appears, threatening all of Berk and targeting Toothless. Hiccup makes the bold of decision of setting out to find a hidden world of dragons his father, the late Stoick (Gerard Butler), told him about many years ago. If they can find it, both dragons and Vikings might finally be at peace.

Animated films tend to veer from the hastily slapped together to works of true artistry. What has made the “How to Train Your Dragon” series notable and a lot of fun is how it merges innocent fun with cinematic craft. Based on the books by Cressida Cowell, the first movie was a surprise hit in 2010, introducing us to Hiccup as a younger teen, first meeting Toothless and renouncing becoming a dragon slayer. This third installment succeeds in turning the saga into a great coming of age tale. As with the first two movies at the helm is director Dean DeBlois, who also takes on writing duties. DeBlois makes sure the material is just as engaging, but with more mature themes. He opens with a rowdy and hilarious raid on a dragon hunting ship, as Hiccup, Astrid and other notables like Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) engage in fiery battle with a few, typical slip ups. Visually we get immense, wild new sights including a whole horde of new dragons introduced into Berk, including some ghoulishly cute goblins that terrify Gobber (Craig Ferguson). This is a movie of small and large delights, from immense beasts who roar and stomp to tiny ones you might find floating in a soup pot. The characters we have grown to like from this series are all back, including Snotlout (Jonah Hill), with his big ego and crush on Hiccup’s mother Valka (Cate Blanchett). There are gorgeous vistas as the dragon riders cross the sky and Nordic charm as big warriors with horned helmets clink glasses and pound steel. Returning as visual consultant is master cinematographer Roger Deakins, who helps give scenes a look akin to classic paintings about the Middle Ages. The actual hidden dragon world is a luminous wonder, part “Avatar” and part “Excalibur.”

Yet as a story, “The Hidden World” offers viewers more than just nice visuals. The heart of the plot is the romance between Toothless and Light Fury. DeBlois introduces this material beautifully, with moments of endearing comedy and romantic flourishes that are more elegant than anything in “The Notebook.” We learn that dragons have mating dances, and it is pure, heartwarming hilarity when Toothless tries to strut his stuff by a lake in front of a befuddled Light Fury. She’s not an easy catch and is animated with a wonderful combination of toughness and friendliness. There is a nice message in “The Hidden World” about love between equals, and in the same way Light Fury isn’t some damsel in distress, neither is Astrid, who is written as a real partner for Hiccup, not just as the typical, animated heroine who needs saving. A key lesson by the end is that the warrior women must end up saving the doubting men. But there is indeed glorious, mythical romance in this movie, with scenes between Toothless and Light Fury that are enrapturing as they fly through storm clouds, bond in mist and shyly get closer to each other. It all comes together into a grander story about friendship by the end, and the inevitable changes that come with growing up. There is a scene by a rocky shore near the end that sentimental hearts will find irresistible, as well as tear ducts.

As with most great fantasy, along with the romance there is great action. “The Hidden World” has sequences of almost operatic, Wagnerian breadth as Hiccup faces off with Grimmel amid flames and crashing ships, then while riding dragons high in the sky. Grimmel is that classic, Nordic warlord terror from countless Viking tales, fashioned here for one of the year’s best family entertainments. The music by John Powell gives it all life with orchestral majesty.

It’s rare to find a good film that caters to the more developed, artistic sensibilities of adult viewers and the simple pleasure kids seek at the movies. “The Hidden World” has both with big dashes of humor and heart.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” opens Feb. 22 in theaters nationwide.