Like most people, I saw the first How to Train Your Dragon movie way after I should have. Dreamworks Animation had mostly become a stay away for me after a run of Shrek films and Shark Tale‘s had left me burnt time and time again. While some of the stories worked, most did not. With my future wife, we watched the film weeks after its premiere at our local discount theater.

There are few movies I’ve actively regretted waiting to watch on a big screen, but from the early scenes in that first feature, it was clear that Dreamworks struck gold. Now, almost a decade later, the franchise completes the trilogy of acclaimed films. Luckily for everyone, the franchise lives up to the considerable standard it set for itself, pushing CG animation to new heights.

When we rejoin the story, a year has passed since the events of How to Train Your Dragon 2. Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) has become chief of the village and Berk has more dragons than ever. He has been reunited with his mother (Cate Blanchette) and continues to date Astrid (America Ferrera). His trusty gang of friends (Craig FergusonJonah Hill, Kristen WiigKit HarringtonChristopher Mintz-Plasse, and Justin Rupple) are still by his side. Most important of all is Toothless, his blue Night Fury dragon who has risen to King of Dragons.

The neighboring clans of dragon hunters have grown tired of Berk. They hire Night Fury killer and dragon hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) to kidnap Toothless. With a new threat, Hiccup and Berk set out to find the fabled “Hidden World,” where dragons and humans can live in harmony.

The story that director Dean Dubois crafts does not necessarily try to reinvent the wheel. However, by rooting the events through the emotional journey of a few characters, it greatens the impact of the individual moments. He trusts the visuals to speak for themselves, and at times the movie actively removes speaking characters from the equation to let Toothless go off on his own. With the introduction of “Light Fury,” the franchise finds new ground for these sequences to work. While no spoken language finds its way into the film, the physicality and doglike animation of Toothless has never been more pronounced.

Speaking of visuals, the shot selections by cinematographer Gil Zimmerman are astounding. His work has been pronounced in the past, using a moving camera for action sequences in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise, as well as Puss in Boots and Tarzan. Here, he pushes the limits of how the action can be framed and helps create incredibly compelling shots. You feel the grandiosity of their world thanks to establishing shots throughout the film, and the environments are impeccable. With Roger Deakins on staff as a visual consultant, it is no surprise that cliffs, waterfalls, and bird’s eye shots of the immense ocean feel so tactile. Zimmerman delivers the goods and pushes the film to visual greatness.

Something that was tough to ignore this time out was the use of special effects. Many would question how effects are used in, particularly CG animation, but How to Train Your Dragon features some of the best. For the most part, fire, water, steam, and clouds are particularly difficult to animate straight up, so visual effects are often used to make them appear lifelike. As you can imagine, literally all of those elements are key to the story of How to Train Your Dragon, and each looks brilliant. No CG animated film has employed the effects to look this good since The Good Dinosaur, but this film pushes effects in animation even further.

Composer John Powell returns to score the film, and he delivers his best work since the How to Train Your Dragon. Powell really captures the moments throughout the film with soaring music. What makes this score stand out are the more personal, tiny moments. This allows How to Train Your Dragon’s emotional moments to land with the audience.  This work also adds tension and works excellently as an action score. From top to bottom, the work is excellent.

Overall, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World represents a new landmark for Dreamworks Animation. This also makes the franchise the second best three film series in animation history, following only the Toy Story trilogy. It was great to see the emotional payoff of three films work so well, and now the ball is firmly in Disney/Pixar‘s court when it comes to the Animated Feature race.

GRADE: (½)

What did you think of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World? Let us hear your thoughts in the comments below! 

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