If you'd have been sitting next to me inside the movie theater where I watched How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, you'd have likely seen the trembling of the hands and the unmistakeable sounds of sniffling.
You'd have looked over at this film journalist, who writes passionately and intelligently week after week after week about cinema, with tear-stained cheeks and Elmer Fudd eyes looking up at the big screen having been transported to an extraordinary world unlike any other he'd ever experienced.
You'd have gently acknowledged with a knowing nod of your head, empathetic yet determined to not interrupt what was clearly for him an experience that transcended mere cinema.
I have a dear friend, fellow film journalist and Midwest Film Journal co-founder Evan Dossey, who has a similar visceral response to the Paddington films, universally acclaimed films that have, for him, become far more than cinematic experiences. To be in the room when Evan describes Paddington is to realize that these films transcend mere moviegoing. For Evan, the Paddington films are part of who he is and how he lives his life and part of the worldview that he wishes to impart as he nears fatherhood and the next labyrinthian twist on his life journey.
While I love the Paddington films, Evan lives the Paddington films.
Never about disability yet possessing of contemporary cinema's most exceptional characters with disabilities, the How to Train Your Dragon films have immersed themselves within my world while expanding it magnificently into extraordinary universes. These tales of Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and Toothless (Kit Harington) have been both deeply intimate and personal along action-packed and universal. Based upon the children's novels by Cressida Crowell, the How to Train Your Dragon films have been, in essence, my own personal Harry Potter series and this third film, The Hidden World, possesses everything I wanted it to possess as Hiccup moves into adulthood alongside his long beloved Astrid (America Ferrera) with his doubters still doubting and his naysayers still naysaying.
Yet, he's still there and showing up over and over and over again. He's inching his way toward a destiny of greatness that even he occasionally doubts, yet he leans into it and leans into it again.
Hiccup's loss of a limb occurred early in How to Train Your Dragon, an important fact yet never has it been a defining one. He's what many of us in the disabled community long for in a character - a character whose disability is part of the story rather than the story itself. The story for Hiccup is and has been his strength and his perseverance, his tenderness and his passion. In the How to Train Your Dragon films, Hiccup is strong and wise, loved and loving, and a leader yet a listener.
The story this time around, which is pegged as the final installment in the series unless corporate interests interfere, is ultimately a story of love and passion and leadership set amidst set pieces that are simultaneously awesomely action-packed and stunning in their gentleness. Hiccup and Astrid are the Viking sweethearts we've always wanted them to be, fumbling toward marital commitment even as Hiccup's growth into tribal leadership is questioned and challenged. Hiccup and Astrid are in love. It's the kind of soaring, majestic love that we all dream of yet very seldom discover. When the two take a dragon ride through the hidden world of the film's title, it's simply nothing short of awe-inspiring cinema that is both magnificently realized and emotionally resonant. You'll soar alongside Hiccup and Astrid.
Yet, this time around Toothless gets his own due in the form of Light Fury, a blue-eyed stunner who instantly enchants Toothless and whose courtship is treated with remarkable respect and wonder.
The adventure scenes are more dominant this time around as Hiccup moves forward into his tribal leadership and learns how to silence his doubters, while the Type-A Toothless goes up against a great nemesis, F. Murray Abraham's dragon hunting Grimmel, whose life has been devoted to eliminating Night Furies such as Toothless and who now commits every fiber of his being to eliminating Toothless, the last of his species.
While it is not necessary to see the first two How to Train Your Dragon films to appreciate The Hidden World, it is helpful as writer/director Dean DeBlois ties them all together in ways big and small. It's a rare thing to have the same writer/director for all three films in a trilogy, yet the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy is much better because of it. DeBlois infuses the film with a spirit and sense of awe that is consistent throughout all three films, maintaining a thematic consistency and tone that makes this series one of the truly greatest animated series of contemporary cinema.
I'm not exaggerating. I'm not kidding.
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is the film where the words of Hiccup's father (Gerard Butler) and the former Viking king truly come to life. "There is no greater gift than love," he taught his son amidst the fury of battle and the challenges of leadership, and it is this gift that is imparted throughout The Hidden World including in a climax that feels inevitable yet is poignant and and beautiful and leaves you absolutely breathless.
It's difficult to describe the ways in which the How to Train Your Dragon films have immersed themselves in my life, yet somehow they've not only understood my reality they've managed to expand my possibilities and the ways in which I see the world. These films, said to be made for children, are far greater than the limiting labels that we've placed upon them and they've become films that I consider to be "my" films.
This is my world. I mean, sure, I don't have dragons. I really want a dragon, but I don't have one. Yet, there's so much more going on here than simply tales about Vikings and dragons and adventure. There's worlds where people who are vulnerable are simultaneously strong, where people who are insecure manage to persevere, where those who are different find ways to live together, and where we have the opportunity to give the gift of love over and over and over again.
And so we do.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic