Kids these days, what do they want? I mean 7-year-olds, 8-year-olds, down in that diminutive demographic — what are they looking for in a movie?
We can imagine a couple of things: action, obviously; snappy patter, perhaps. Happily, "The Hidden World" — the concluding installment of the "How To Train Your Dragon" trilogy, which began back in 2010 and has grossed more than a billion dollars to date — has acres of action, quite a bit of it brilliant. But there's so much of it that it sometimes obscures the story and, in fact, becomes a little annoying. As for the patter, well, this is Dreamworks, not Pixar, so there's not a lot of edge. But the script, by returning director Dean DeBlois, does have some nicely turned lines, the zippiest of them allotted to a hyper-chattery character called Ruffnut, whose screwball yammering drives everybody crazy. (She's voiced by Kristen Wiig, now a master of off-the-wall and over-the-top verbal excursions.)
On the other hand, I wonder what the little nippers will make of a story that's so tolerant of kissy-face romance and so committed to marriage and even procreation — not just of the human variety but the dragonesque as well. I don't recall being prepared to sit through this sort of thing back in my own single-digit years, but maybe the kids of today are more tolerant. How they'll feel about the movie's rather weak pulse (did it really need to be made?) and its overall willingness to be a little bit boring remains to be seen. I can't speak for all kids about these things, of course, but I'll bet I can speak for a few.
Fans who've stuck with this tale from the beginning will be familiar with the young Viking called Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his once fearsome but now disarmingly cute black dragon, Toothless. They're still resident on the remote island of Berk, a rare place where humans and dragons live together in peace, and where Hiccup, son of the late Viking chieftain Stoick the Vast, is now in charge. Also on the scene is Hiccup's once-lost but now-found mom, Valka (Cate Blanchett) and, much more important, his honey, the blonde warrior girl Astrid (America Ferrera), who yields nothing to Toothless in the area of cuteness.
This is a sunny setup, but there's a large cloud moving in — a heartless dragon hunter called Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham in fine, preening form), who's sailing the seas in a prison ship filled with captive dragons. Grimmel is searching for Toothless, who is an "alpha" dragon of considerable value. In a ploy to hijack Toothless from Hiccup, Grimmel introduces a beautiful white female dragon to, well, that's unclear at first. Initially, it would seem certain that this new dragon has some malign purpose, but before long we realize that she's only here as a love interest for Toothless. Similarly, a herd of comic-relief creatures called hobgoblins appear at first to be on the verge of playing some significant part in the story — but then never quite do. You can't help wondering if such plot stutters are the residue of last-minute tinkering with this much-delayed picture.
The "Dragon" franchise has always been praised for its top-of-the-line digital animation, and here it reaches a new peak. The complex interplay between background and foreground in the many action scenes, the misty light and shifting shadows, the reading of ancient maps by flickering hearth fire, the look of worn leather and sudden dragon slobber, and of course the soaring sky rides featuring waves of men and dragons — all of this constitutes a single soaring achievement. (It's too bad that action sequences sometimes erupt for what might be no other reason than to hold an easily distracted kid's attention — understandable, but a little irritating for non-kids calmly tracking the narrative.)
As the narrative bends toward the titular Hidden World — the ancestral home of all dragons — a wave of homiletic goop begins washing over us. We hear talk of "greedy humans," and Hiccup tells one of the dragons, "Our world doesn't deserve you yet." Suddenly, we're no longer in the timeless universe of the story, but instead find ourselves stranded among the earthbound moral posturing of our own time. Why must it always be this way?