This review will be a bit unorthodox but in a way that’s not out of line with how we consume entertainment in our modern media bazaar. In short, I went to see “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” without having seen the first two movies in the series. Offended? Additional critical takes on Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic.com are that way. But the experience of being dropped into one of these franchise installments with little to no previous exposure isn’t an uncommon one — especially if you’re a parent or grandparent — and it might as well be addressed. Can a three-quel imbibed without Parts One and Two be enjoyed? Will it even make sense?
The answers, in this case, are yes and mostly. To be fair, I cheated a little by skimming the plot synopses for the first two films on Wikipedia, if only to keep the names straight, but all I knew going in to “The Hidden World” — the final installment in Dreamworks’ ’ “How to Train Your Dragon” series — was that the first two movies were highly popular with both audiences and critics and that the digital animation was considered state of the art.
Which still didn’t prepare me for the film’s look – the sheer tactility of the animated images. Based loosely on a book series by Cressida Cowell and once again adapted and directed by Dean DeBlois (Pierre-Olivier Vincent was the production designer), “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” has a visual sumptuousness and a fluid agility that make it worth experiencing even if you’re not paying attention to the story. It moves the way you imagine a flying dragon might.
All the films take place in a fantasy Viking world, where the people are cartoony in the familiar Disney/Pixar style. Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), who I gather was an adolescent wimp-turned-hero in the first movie, is now the clever young chieftain of the village of Berk, a colorfully vertiginous Nordic outpost where humans have learned to live with dragons rather than trying to kill them.
The latter are where the designers and animators cut loose: All manner of colors, sizes, scales, and snouts are on display, with collect-’em-all creature names like Bewilderbeast, Eruptodon, Zippleback, and Slitherwing, oh my. The series’ secondary hero is Hiccup’s dragon, Toothless, a leathery black critter with wide eyes and a prosthetic tail. Truth to tell, he and his bat-winged, fire-breathing pals are more interesting than Hiccup’s friends, a bumptious crew whose celebrity voice-actors — Kirsten Wiig, Jonah Hill, Kit “Jon Snow” Harington, Christopher “McLovin’” Mintz-Plasse — work overtime to give their lines a spin.
Exceptions include America Ferrera as Astrid, Hiccup’s warrior princess girlfriend, Cate Blanchett as his Valkyrie mom, Valka, and F. Murray Abraham as the new film’s villain, a dragonslayer named Grimmel with a metrosexual wardrobe, some kind of Mittel-European accent, and Roger Stone’s hair.
So the producers know how to bring on the class, not that the kids in the row behind me at the screening cared who won an Oscar for “Blue Jasmine” or “Amadeus” (although, honestly, Mom and Dad, it’s never too soon). They were too busy having fun, laughing at the slapstick byplay and cringing at the jokes about Hiccup and Astrid getting married.
And then all of us shut up and just grooved on the action sequences, including an opening single-take, multiple-character swordfight aboard a Viking ship and a climactic visit to a black light underground Dragon World (soon to appear as a ride on the Universal Studios tour, I bet). The “How to Train Your Dragon” films are said to be the rare cases where theatrical 3-D is worth the extra ticket cost, and while the screening I was at was in 2-D, I kept feeling my eyeballs tugged toward imagined fields of depth and hue.
How’s the movie compared to the first two? Don’t ask me, but I will say that the storyline feels fairly forced and the character relationships roll along in a well-worn rut. That familiarity is what endears sequels to true believers, of course, even when the inspiration runs out. And the inspiration hasn’t quite run out on this franchise: The scenes in which Toothless meets his female opposite number, an alabaster, cat-like dragon called a LightFury, and woos her in a mating flight that begins comically on Earth before soaring with skin-prickling digital artistry into the clouds, is worth the price of admission on its own.
In fact, that one scene convinced me to do what much of the rest of “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” didn’t. It made me want to start from the beginning.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD
Written and directed by Dean DeBlois, based on the book series by Cressida Cowell. With the voices of Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, F. Murray Abraham, Cate Blanchett. At Boston theaters, suburbs. 104 minutes. PG (adventure action, mild rude humor)Ty Burr can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.