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Here there be (more) dragons - 'How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World'

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Despite how it may sometimes seem, it isn’t easy building an ongoing franchise. Creating something that will hold audience interest through multiple iterations takes plenty of skill and more than a little luck. Even animated fare, which could appear to have a leg up when it comes to turning a movie into a series, doesn’t always succeed.

That’s why the “How to Train Your Dragon” films – based on the Cressida Cowell book series of the same name – are such a delight. These movies – the third of which has just been released – have proven to be quality outings, earning plenty at the box office while also being of high enough quality to satisfy the critical sphere.

This newest installment - full title: “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” – offers us the third leg of a trilogy long in the making. Like its predecessors, the film offers up a surprisingly heartfelt message wrapped in high-flying dragon action and goofy slapstick. It feels like an ending – perhaps not of the franchise as a whole, but at least of this portion of the story.

Hiccup (Jay Baruchel, “The Kindness of Strangers”) is doing his best to be a good chief for the people of Berk while also providing a safe haven for the many dragons of the world. It’s a tricky balance to strike, but he manages with a lot of help from his mother Valka (Cate Blanchett, “The House with a Clock in its Walls”), his advisor Gobber (Craig Ferguson, “Duck Duck Goose”), his girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera, TV’s “Superstore”) and – most of all – his dragon pal Toothless.

However, Hiccup’s dreams of keeping Berk a secret from the outside world are shattered when a sinister dragon hunter named Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham, “Robin Hood”) is hired by a group of warlords to take care of Hiccup and his crew once and for all. Further complicating matters is the appearance of a Light Fury – a potential mate for Toothless, though he proves less than adept at wooing the new dragon.

It’s left to Hiccup and his friends – Astrid, Snotlout (Jonah Hill, TV’s “Maniac”), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse, TV’s “Blark and Son”) and the twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig, “Downsizing”) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple, “Battle for Incheon: Operation Chromite”) – to figure out how to get their dragon friends to the legendary Hidden World, a possibly-mythical homeland for dragons located at the end of the world, before Grimmel can destroy Toothless and the rest of the Berkian dragon horde.

“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” offers up a well-constructed third act to the series. The charm of the premise is still there – humans and dragons living alongside one another in peace, with genuine care for one another’s welfare – and still has room for the now-standard gags revolving around the domesticated tendencies of the dragons. The relationships between man and beast have always served as good comic fodder.

Where this latest installment differs is that it actually allows its main character some room for growth. Nothing too heavy, obviously – this is still a kids’ movie about people riding dragons, after all – but more than you see in most animated franchise fare. It’s a fairly thoughtful look at what it means to have the responsibilities of leadership weighing you down, particularly when you’re in constant comparison to your father before you.

And yes, this is all interspersed with some silly jokes – including the running gag of Toothless playing fetch with Hiccup’s prosthetic leg (which doesn’t play nearly as weirdly as it sounds) – and a fair amount of visually dazzling animation. The action stuff is fine, but there are some fight scenes that are good and a handful of moments where you can just tell that the DreamWorks crew were just told to “make it look cool.”

As for the cast, the truth is that this group captures so perfectly the in-the-moment nature of animated casting. The makeup of this ensemble is extremely reflective of the time in which the first movie came out. Seriously – Baruchel, Hill, Mintz-Plasse, Wiig – it’s a who’s who of folks entwined with the hip Hollywood zeitgeist of a decade ago. That those names don’t register the same way now doesn’t really matter, but it’s interesting to observe.

Performance-wise, everyone is solid. Baruchel’s proven to be surprisingly effective in this role and clearly appreciates the opportunity it presents. As far as the rest of the late-aughts crew … they’re fine. While no one seems to be going above and beyond, neither is anyone phoning it in. Ferguson brings his usual relentless Scottishness to the table, while Blanchett is the consummate pro. Abraham is creepy and oily (and enjoying himself immensely) as the dragon hunter Grimmel.

“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” is as close to an ending as you’re likely to get with a franchise like this one; the film offers a sense of closure regarding this particular story while also offering up the possibility of exploring the movie’s world further. Considering the film’s box office numbers, it’s tough to imagine that we’ve seen the last of this world.

Here there be dragons.

[4 out of 5]

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