Perhaps lost in the shuffle of Captain Marvel’s box office success and Us’s stellar opening back in March, a heartwarming, smart, and joyful animated film trilogy came to its bittersweet conclusion. Since their debut in 2010, the How To Train Your Dragon films have become critically acclaimed box office successes for DreamWorks. They tell a visually stunning, heartfelt tale about friendship and family, the pains of growing up, and the struggle of finding yourself.
You could label those typical kid movie “lessons” but these films delved into more mature themes like loss, the idealism of childhood, and the pressures of adulthood. The trilogy concluded this year with How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World. Loosely based on the series of children’s book by British author Cressida Cowell, the success of the films spawned an animated television series and a handful of short films.
BACK TO THE START
Set in the time of the Vikings on a remote island called Berk, the series tells the story of Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), the scrawny, awkward son of the mighty chieftain Stoic (Gerard Butler) and his unorthodox, but enduring and heartwarming friendship with an adorable and spirited dragon named Toothless. When we first meet Hiccup, he’s insecure and struggling to placate his intense and distant father, and lives in a world where hunting dragons is what being a Viking is all about. Hiccup’s forbidden friendship with Toothless becomes a catalyst for him coming into his own as a leader, improving his relationship with his dear old dad (who’s really just a big softie), and proving to the people of Berk that peaceful coexistence with dragons is possible.
It’s a classic coming of age story: as Hiccup grows as a leader by doing things his own way, he discovers that the things he thought made him weak and a bit of an oddball (his compassion and imagination) were really his strengths. His “weaknesses” allow him to see things from a different point of view and change things in Berk for the better.
It’s also a classic animal-kid friendship story. Over the course of the three films, Hiccup’s friendship with Toothless strengthens and bolsters him through every up and down in his life, including finding out his long thought dead mother (voiced by Queen Cate Blanchett) is actually alive and a dragon rider herself, and (spoiler alert) Stoic’s tragic death in the second film. The two rely on each other in more ways than one; this mutual reliance is manifested physically in their similar injuries and disabilities that mean they can only fly together (or so we think until the final film).
Director Dean DeBlois created a triumphant animated world within the films that is impossible to tear yourself away from. It’s the individual elements (score, cinematography, and CGI magic) that immerse the viewer in the fantastic world and make the greater whole something really special to watch.
John Powell’s score has been consistently praised from the first notes of the Celtic-inspired “This is Berk” that opens the first film, through the ethereal “Where No One Goes”, a collaboration with Sigur Ros lead vocalist, Jonsi, to the epic “Once Were Dragons” that closes the saga. The vibe of the music is epic and and joyful and romantic; the score of the first film earned Powell his first Academy Award nomination.
It boosts the story’s whimsical nature while also reflecting the more simplistic undertones of the story. You can’t help but get excited (and even tear up) when you hear the familiar and unique theme utilized in a brand new way, whether it be during a mournful goodbye, a triumphant victory, or a romantic flight.
The films are visually hypnotic: the vibrant hues and colors used (especially in The Hidden World) are impossible to tear your eyes away from and will have viewers of all ages looking up at the screen with a childlike wonder. They absolutely benefited from the touch and consultation of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Each time we see Hiccup and Toothless take flight, there’s a feeling of true transcendence and exhilaration that stems from the combined efforts of the sweeping score and breathtaking visuals. In The Hidden World, when Hiccup finally finds the titular realm, we are treated to a lengthy, colorful scene of countless dragons flying through luminescent, glowing landscapes that look like abstract paintings come to life. It’s moving and immersive and brings the viewer right into the action.
THE FINAL FLIGHT
The finale itself is a rather simply plotted story: a villainous dragon hunter wants to kidnap and kill Toothless and steal the Berkian’s dragons. (Both sequels have a bit of a generic villain problem as neither’s presence feels especially haunting or memorable, but the focus of the films is more on the relationships between the heroes so that doesn’t necessarily lessen the emotional punch the movies pack.) By the time we meet up with him in The Hidden World, Hiccup has created an almost Utopian civilization in Berk where dragons and humans live in harmony. The external threat of the dragon hunters causes Hiccup to abandon home in search of a “hidden world” where his people and dragons can live in peace, safe from those who would harm them.
The final film more than any of the others seems to advocate for animal rights and critique the way we as humans take for granted the utter beauty of our world and the creatures we share it with. The villains of the series (with the exception of Hiccup’s misguided dad) embody a desire for control and dominance; they want to use the dragons or kill them to gain that control which is shown in complete juxtaposition with Hiccup’s earnest and determined plan to find a safe place for them. From the get-go in the final film, we get the sense of the end of an era. Hiccup is optimistic but eventually realizes that what they’ve built can’t last and that they have to let the dragons be free, as others will never stop trying to control them.
We find comfort in stories that we can relate to, sometimes when we least expect it. Sometimes a film hits you right in the feels because it pushes the exact button that’s been stressing you out or weighing on you in your own life. In the fall of my senior year of college, I watched How to Train Your Dragon 2 a lot. A couple of times in one week once actually, and it made me feel a lot of feelings. Looking back, I realize that I felt a profound connection to what Hiccup was going through: the feeling of having to grow up, rely on yourself for answers, and have others rely on you as well, without having much of a clue of what to do.
When I sat down in the theater to see The Hidden World with a friend and fellow Toothless fan, we chuckled at ourselves sitting there among mostly young kids and their parents. When Hiccup and Toothless were saying their inevitable goodbyes, I heard the little boy next to me say to his mom, “I don’t like it! It’s making me sad!”. As I blinked back my own tears, I realized that that was part of the point: sometimes growing up means having to say goodbye to things we love.
The focal point of the entire story was the loving, codependent relationship between Hiccup and Toothless, therefore its very real conclusion was that they had to say goodbye out of necessity to each other’s growth and survival. Their waning reliance on each other even manifests itself physically, with Hiccup manufacturing a way for Toothless to fly without a rider. Hiccup’s coming to terms with letting Toothless go is another step in his maturity and his reluctant and complicated march towards adulthood. It’s a bittersweet finale and a solid ending to a story that was consistently about finding your way by making hard decisions.
When Hiccup and Toothless reunite years later, at the very end of the film, the little boy cheered up again, ecstatic to see the best buds flying through the clouds together once more. And as I watched it, I was struck by how satisfying an ending it was despite it not being your typical “happily ever after”. In short, the film found a way to balance its charming, silly, wondrous elements with some hard truths and maybe subconsciously expelled some fear of growing up in the kids watching it. The dragons may not be real, but the emotions sure as hell are.
This Spring, there’s been an air of finality to a lot of beloved epics: Avengers: Endgame brings the first major chapter of the MCU to a close, perhaps the last great communally watchable TV show just took its final bow, and we’ve laid eyes on the first trailer for the last Star Wars film in the Skywalker saga. The Dragon trilogy may not have as massive a following as any of the aforementioned cultural juggernauts but its finale curates a melancholic, soaring, and emotional farewell to a story that’s relatable for anyone who’s ever been afraid of that next step in life.