Not long into "How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World," the film's baddie dismisses his enemies by claiming, "They don't have a leader -- just a boy." Whether he's right or wrong is the stuff of a film billed as "the epic conclusion" to a series launched nine years ago and last seen in 2014's "How to Train Your Dragon 2."
The DreamWorks Animation trilogy has always been something special, an out-of-left-field surprise that prioritized artfully telling a good story rather than bowing to the presumptions of what makes a hit animated family picture (talking animals, pop song and dance...). The third and final installment stays true to form, satisfactorily wrapping up the story of characters in whom audiences have become invested.
The films' human hero, Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), now reigns as chief of Berk, responsible for the safety of its human and dragon cohabitants. When a new threat emerges in dragon killer Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), Hiccup recalls tales his father (Gerard Butler) told him of a "hidden world." Hiccup determines that this hidden world represents the best chance of long-term survival for the Berkians, and so begins a quest that promises big changes for everyone, but especially Hiccup and his loyal dragon Toothless.
The "boy and his dragon" dynamic remains front and center, although challenged by both spreading their wings in maturity. "The Hidden World" explores how life and love demand change and sacrifice even for a seemingly inseparable couple. Hiccup and Toothless find themselves in parallel with the young man anticipating marriage to longtime love Astrid (America Ferrera) and Toothless discovering a female "Night Fury" dragon, dubbed a "Light Fury" for her bright, white coloring. Natural instincts triggered, Toothless launches into a silent-film-style courtship of the Light Fury, shyly and awkwardly making his moves (most notably in an extended, comical mating-ritual sequence with Hiccup Cyrano de Bergerac-ing his support from a hiding place).
Toothless' animal instincts and independence threaten the bond between the dragon and Hiccup. Add the formidable, Disney-style villain who just wants Toothless dead, and the picture has plenty of rooting interest and the setup for an emotional payoff. Nothing else really matters here: Cate Blanchett, Jonah Hill, and Craig Ferguson reprise their supporting roles without much memorable to do (Kristin Wiig gets a funny sequence where her good-gal motormouth unnerves the bad guy, while disgraced actor T.J. Miller has been discreetly replaced by Justin Rupple). The most prominent female character this time (the Light Fury) doesn't say a word, but thankfully gets her own heroic moments.
Part of what has always made the "Dragon" movies distinctive is its commitment to grounding the reality of its universe: the aesthetic remains largely photorealistic (with costumes and designs that have drifted ever closer to a geek-pleasing "Game of Thrones" look) and the majestic dragons defiantly non-anthropomorphic. Thrillingly designed action and John Powell's dynamic score contribute to the story's epic sweep. Fans will no doubt weep at this heartfelt conclusion to the trilogy, although its coda promises at least the opportunity for a new trilogy to come (with a franchise this lucrative, it's only a matter of time until it returns). For now, though, the little franchise that could is all grown up and ready to leave the nest, so wipe that tear away, and say your goodbyes, kids.