Tuesday, March 5, 2019

ONCE THERE WERE DRAGONS: a review of "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World"

Based upon the book series by Cressida Cowell
Written and Directed by Dean DeBlois
*** (three stars)

With all due respect to my beautiful grey cat named Rigby, I wish to take some moments to speak about my sleek black cat named Jada.

Jada has been my beloved friend for almost the full 14 years of her life. She is a very mischievous cat, one who always races away from me should I attempt to capture her for an embrace. Yet once fully retrieved, she is a ball of affection, kneading and purring profusely, her wet nose pushing gently at my glasses, the top of her head making forceful connections with my chin. Typically, she is an especially quiet cat as she is nowhere near as talkative as Rigby. But by mealtimes, she more than makes her presence and demands for food known. Jada has a ravenous appetite, gobbling up her daily meals within what feels to be a blink of an eye and then races away to the basement door behind which sits Rigby who is leisurely eating his meals, the very meals that Jada would devour herself if she could somehow break through the door.

Jada is pleasantly plump but do not let a little chubbiness fool you as she is still able to fly through the house at the speed of light.  She trails (or herds) me wherever I go. She often sits near me in an old black chair as I write these reviews. She sleeps alongside me in bed. And on the living room love seat each night, Jada has permanently claimed her space with me, whether next to me or on top of me as she drapes her body over my shoulder, stretching her front legs and paws down my chest towards my stomach. While she can exude such sweet loyalty, she can definitely be more than a little cross as her tail can deliver several slow, curling warnings to not disturb her rest, especially if one of her enormously expressive eyes opens into a furrowed slit.

I have taken this time in describing my blessed companion because when I first saw Dean DeBlois and Chris Sanders' masterful, resplendent "How To Train Your Dragon" (2010), the first chapter in the film trilogy involving the young Viking Hiccup and his unexpected friendship with the sleek, black Night Fury dragon named Toothless, there was one moment in particular when Toothless curled up for a rest, eyes and tail settling around himself and I vividly remember remarking to myself, "That's Jada!!!" And in turn, as I am unable to help myself, I will often call Jada "my little Toothless" as she regards me with a quizzical expression before settling down over my shoulder once again.

And so, I have to admit that I was a little apprehensive to see Dean DeBlois' "How To Train Your Dragon; The Hidden World," as it is indeed the final chapter in the story of Hiccup and Toothless. Of course, as I had adored the original film as well as DeBlois' superb "How To Train Your Dragon 2" (2014), I was more than thrilled to see a new episode. But as I had loved the friendship of Hiccup and Toothless so very much, complete with its reminders of my own relationship with Jada, I was unsure as to how emotionally powerful such a conclusion would potentially be.

Yes, with "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," Hiccup and Toothless' journey does indeed reach its enormously effective and tender hearted conclusion but that being said, the film in its entirety does not quite scale the extreme heights of its predecessors. This is certainly not a quality that ultimately derails all that had arrived before, and this third installment is not a disappointment whatsoever. I feel that overall, DeBlois has unquestionably created a fine ending to an especially classy film trilogy during an era where so many films, animated or otherwise, have forsake the art in favor of commerce. With "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," we are given a film that  show us handsomely how the two can co-exist.

Picking up one year after the events of the second film, which concluded with Hiccup (again voiced by Jay Baruchel) becoming the Chief of his Viking village of Berk and Toothless ascending to becoming the Alpha of all dragons, the island of  Berk has now become over-populated with dragons due to Hiccup's rescue missions with his dragon rider friends and all in the service of his dream to create a full human/dragon utopia.

Meanwhile, the evil Grimmel the Grisly (voiced by F. Murray Abraham), in cahoots with warlords, holds in captivity a white Night Fury dragon, who will be used as bait to attract and capture Toothless, thus leading to the full destruction of the dragons in their entirety.

After surviving an attack on Berk by Grimmel, Hiccup decides to lead his village and the dragons to "The Hidden World," a secret, safe haven for dragons to exist peacefully, a world once described to him as a small child by his now deceased Father Stoick (voiced by Gerard Butler in flashback sequences).

And as for Toothless, his life takes quite the unexpected turn once he does meet the white Night Fury (dubbed a "Light Fury"), and who soon reciprocates his affections. But as Night Furies mate for life, what does this new romance mean for the friendship between Toothless and Hiccup?

Just as with the previous two installments, Dean DeBlois' "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World" is a meticulously detailed, lushly animated, lovingly realized escapade with a powerful attention to story, character, locale and emotion. Additionally, I continue to be engaged with the variety of dragon species presented in the film, each type given its own distinct personalities and attributes.

To that end, I appreciated how DeBlois has allowed his human characters to grow with each film, and with regards to "The Hidden World," Hiccup takes an even larger stage into his adulthood as he deeply wrestles not only with how he chooses to lead the Vikings as their young Chief, undeniably within the shadow of his deceased Father, but also his building romance with the courageous, spunky Astrid (engagingly voiced by America Ferrera), a love story that foreshadows their future marriage and eventual co-leadership of their tribe.

Of course, the enormously beating heart of this film lies within three interlinked love stories. In addition to the aforementioned union between Hiccup and Astrid, we are of course invested with Toothless and the Light Fury, which in turn fuels, informs and advances the central love story between Toothless and Hiccup to its beautifully earned tear stained finale, a conclusion that wonderfully plays into the mythology of dragons and precisely why we are unable to view them anymore.

With the luxurious Toothless, who for me, has been one of the most captivatingly realized animated creatures I have been fortunate enough to witness, I continue to be thankful and amazed with how DeBlois has refused to make him "cartoonish," so to speak, always treating him as if he were a real, living, breathing member of the animal kingdom with his own characteristics, behaviors, attributes and qualities that are completely idiosyncratic to himself and his species...as well as with the Light Fury.

I adored their romance, their dynamic with each other, their humorous mating rituals and dance of attraction which literally takes to the skies in several of the series' breathtaking, dazzling flying sequences. And again, the animation is simply astounding as both Toothless and the Light Fury communicate without spoken words and entirely through stunning body language that does indeed communicate all we need to know to understand their courtship.

To that end, we completely understand precisely why the Light Fury does not trust Hiccup, for why would she as she has been held captive, and will soon be killed by humans? To that end, and most urgently, we understand the quandary that Toothless faces as he is forced to choose between his love and his best friend. And animals being animals, hard wired through DNA to be whom they are, the choices are inevitable even as both he and Hiccup are equally afraid of having to confront farewells.

Even with all of this wonderment, I was softer on this film than the previous two chapters essentially because for every thing that indeed happens within this film, not terribly much happens. In fact, "The Hidden World" quite often reminded me of my feelings with Pixar and Lee Unkrich's "Toy Story 3" (2010), another highly entertaining, exceedingly emotional film that also felt to be more than a little padded as the rampant hijinks that took up much of the film did feel to contain more than a little conceptual wheel spinning.

With "The Hidden World," I had the same emotions as so much of the film is essentially a series of ambush attacks and escapes and all at the service of sustaining a fairly generic good vs. evil battle with a fairly generic and frankly, uninteresting villain in Grimmel the Grisly. Because of this quality, the film dragged a bit when I felt it should have continued to soar.

In retrospect, I wonder if this film even needed to have a villain at all! What if the film simply excised Grimmel and kept every other element? That would've altered some of the frame work of the series as the Viking battles have been integral to the overall plot and dragon mythology. But even so, perhaps if the film  had been even more daring and riskier, it could have had a greater potential with being something more triumphant that what it actually was.

The beauty of this series has always been the core relationship between Hiccup and Toothless and therefore, a mirror to the bond we formulate with our animal companions every day. With Dean DeBlois' "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," I could not help but to think about if Jada, Rigby and I were ever to be separated for an especially extended period, and then, if we were to be reunited, would they remember me? Would all that I gave to them throughout our lives be returned back to me? Or were the feelings of love just projections I placed onto them to invent a bond that truthfully never existed?

In my heart, I feel that Jada and Rigby would remember me, for sometimes, when Rigby sees me after a time when we have been apart, I look to his eyes and his gaze honestly feels as if he hasn't seen me in a year, when it has only been a few hours in a day. And also, when, on a Friday night, after yet another achingly long week, as I ease back to rest upon the love seat, Jada will blissfully appear, climb me, settle in upon my shoulder and begin to purr emphatically, as if she is soothing me for the night in a fashion that feels to be nothing less than nurturing.

Our bond with animals is something that exists of such purity and while I will never understand it, I remain so thankful to be a part of its power and exquisite grace. With "How To Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," it is unquestionably this very power and exquisite grace that is paramount and provides a level of ache, sorrow and uplift that is truly rare for any film, animated or otherwise. The film's final moments are crystalline in their utter beauty and in doing so, Dean DeBlois celebrates and upholds the bonds we create and share with animals brilliantly, for these are the bonds which are unbreakable.

No comments:

Post a Comment