How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World entered theaters five years after How to Train Your Dragon 2, nine years after the first film, and fifteen years after the original book series by Cressida Cowell. All three movies provide the warm comfort of familiarity in how similar they are in theme, humor, and appearance, but the trilogy also somehow manages to feel like one of those series that just refuses to end. With all the shorts, TV shows, and toy deals that flood the market in the interim period between feature releases, Hidden World almost feels more like the 5th or 6th film. That said, the series has done a decent job at attempting an evolution over the course of the trilogy.
For example, How to Train Your Dragon 2 found Hiccup and Toothless in a transformed Berk: after centuries of dragon-human conflict, the two species finally coexist. Hiccup meets his long-lost mother and loses his father, whose shoes he struggles to fill the entire film. Hidden World picks up in a similar Berk, but with Hiccup comfortably positioned as leader. He and Astrid consider marriage, Toothless finds a love interest – everyone has seemingly matured. Hiccup has grown as a leader, as a boyfriend, and as a “bud” to Toothless, successfully leading raids on dragon trappers night after night. So, you ask, what’s the problem? What is the issue that Hiccup could face being this confident and comfortable? Where’s the movie? The answer, of course, is that Hiccup is too confident and too comfortable. Because, really, what else could it be?
We begin with Hiccup and company raiding a boat filled with caged dragons. They release the dragons, fight the crew, and escape, leading their new dragons back home. And yes, they are their dragons now. The coexistence of the species in Berk basically consists of the humans providing the dragons with food and moral support while the dragons perform all manual labor and win all the battles for them. These battles, of course, are against other humans who don’t believe dragons and people can coexist. But what kind of coexistence is this, really?
With this question in mind, I wonder how far exactly children’s movies should be analyzed. When Green Book won the 2019 Academy Award for Best Picture, FilmTwitter™ erupted, in both outrage and outrage about the outrage. To call the selection contentious would be an understatement. Regardless of which side of the red-carpeted aisle you stood, the backlash (and backlash of the backlash) can only be seen as microcosmic of current political trends, but also a shifting Hollywood. Green Book shared nominations with Roma, Black Panther, Blackkklansman, and If Beale Street Could Talk: all films led and directed by people of color, and also, like Green Book, all films that in some way or another dealt with race. And yet, it was Green Book that won Best Picture. It was the one nominated feature on race that told the story from the perspective of the featured white man, was directed and written by white men, and ignored the claims of the real-life relatives of the black man the story involved. These criticisms leveled at the film also generally noted the similarities to race-related films of the past like Driving Miss Daisy, The Help, or The Blind Side, that also examined racism from the white (savior) perspective and received ample recognition from the Academy. And yet, it is with Green Book, in 2019, that this type of film is utterly vilified; audiences are tired of the narrative – and Hollywood finds itself at a point in transition. That said, is it fair to put that level of cultural responsibility onto a decade-old animated trilogy meant for children?
With Hidden World, I’m not sure it really matters. The film readily accepts this responsibility. Perhaps it’s the ship full of caged creatures considered “less than” human, or maybe it’s the idyllic Berk with white men whipping their happily working beasts, but right away, in 2019, the film has primed Hiccup’s reckoning. Hiccup, who has grandstanded time and time again against the evils of the dragon trade, never questions the “slavery” itself. He never questions it, because he never sees it. After all, he doesn’t call Toothless “Slave,” he calls him “Bud.” He saved him. He trained him. He helped him. Hiccup’s a good guy. But Toothless can’t fly on his own, can’t mate, can’t ever leave Berk, and Hiccup can’t see that Toothless isn’t content with that situation. It’s an ignorance that is almost willful in its severity.
Enter Grimmel the Grisly. With an absurdly long face, evil tufts of unrealistically white hair, treacherous British accent provided by F. Murray Abraham, and a name reminiscent of the nightmarish monster of Beowulf, Grendel, Grimmel knows exactly how to take advantage of Hiccup’s idyll. Using his ability to (for lack of a better word) hypnotize dragons to do his bidding, Grimmel successfully taps into what he knows Toothless wants most: real love and companionship from another dragon. Once Toothless, an alpha dragon, gets taken in by the “light fury” that he, Grimmel, controls, all of Berk’s dragons will follow suit, leaving Hiccup and friends heart-broken and dragonless. That is, at least, the plan. Grimmel’s primary objective has always been to forge a world without dragons: a safer world, in his eyes. Grimmel tricks dragons, uses his knowledge of dragon instinct, and yes, “hypnotizes” dragons to do his bidding, because he acknowledges that without convincing dragons to be complicit in their own servitude, and later deaths, he would have to face the dangerous wrath they can easily present. This is considered evil and yet, Hiccup himself trained dragons to effectively be complicit in their own servitude as well, in order to achieve the same goal for Berk. So yes, the villain wants to kill all dragons. Hiccup wants to save all dragons, but live among them. And the dragons? The dragons want to save themselves. The dragons want to live with other dragons. The dragons want to be left alone. They wanted these things in the first film, and they want them in the last. It is only the wishes of the humans that have evolved. Hiccup struggles to realize that his wishes do not align with those of his dragon, and that sometimes the kindest, bravest thing to do for the dragons of Berk is to not just let them go, but let them choose where to go. Hiccup cannot and does not fully realize this until he discovers the Hidden World.
Having tracked his runaway “bud” to the mysterious realm, Hiccup and Astrid soon find themselves the only people in a world completely populated by dragons. They find the place exotic, beautiful, edenic — until the dragons notice them, that is. But it is only in this moment that we (and Hiccup) get a glimpse of what it may actually feel like to be a dragon in a space completely inhabited by humans. Needless to say, Hiccup and Astrid get the hell out of there as fast as possible, but they are only able to do so (it’s worth noting) with Toothless’s assistance. For a movie subtitled The Hidden World, the actual scene inside the hidden world takes up practically no screen time at all. And yet, this moment in the hidden world is the turning point, not just of the film, but of the series in its entirety. Only after Hiccup sees how happy Toothless is leading his own kind, and not helping Hiccup lead his, does the realization finally come: Hiccup treated Toothless with unprecedented kindness. But that doesn’t mean he was kind.
Hiccup’s paradigm shift is an interesting close to a trilogy that never before reflected on why dragons should be trained at all, or whether that act in itself was (while not slavery, perhaps) a further assertion of human dominance over dragons. Hiccup realizes that he cannot keep a dragon trained and also consider him a friend. Considering the title of the franchise this is major stuff. Perhaps also worth mentioning, though, is the fact that despite Hiccup’s newfound clarity regarding human-dragon relations, the film posits this as another example of why Hiccup is such a good leader and a good guy. With Astrid’s help, he can realize his mistakes and correct them. Hiccup’s redemption story revolves totally around Hiccup, and not around Toothless who found his own redemption in the form of freedom. I’m not saying this film is Green Book, or that it’s even anti-Green Book. I’m especially not going to come out and call this film a metaphor, or even an allegory. To do so could be simplistic to the point of offense. But with this specific awakening of Hiccup’s? In 2019? We could just as well call it How to Train Your Dragon: Amazing Grace.
Hiccup’s realization doesn’t mean people and dragons can’t be friends. They can be, and do remain so, but their coexistence is impossible as long as the humans continue to limit the dragons’ pursuit of happiness — as long as they remain blind to the fact that their “buds” aren’t actually happy. Tony Lip of Green Book calls Dr. Don Shirley his “friend.” The family of Dr. Shirley? Calls Lip his employee. The white men were saviors for so long, Hiccup was Berk’s and Toothless’ savior for two whole movies. But now that Hollywood is finally on the cusp of learning to do better, finally starting to reckon with its past and its present, Hiccup can do so as well. Of course, corporate Hollywood is certainly still quite lost, still quite blind, but maybe, at least this once, Hiccup can finally start to see.