Swooping in with the relaxed, comfortable confidence of a franchise finisher that knows it's at the end of its road, the final How to Train Your Dragon movie (we suspect) is a sweet, fun conclusion to a story that never truly achieved the glories of which it was capable, but that always satisfied nonetheless. These movies have all known their strengths, and exploited them modestly and largely successfully, and The Hidden World is no exception: it's funny, thrilling, and sincerely touching, yet never soaring to the lofty heights of innovation that might have made them more than affable trifles, momentary pleasures whose undeniable positive effects dwindle swiftly in the memory. Aspects herein hint toward what could have been accomplished were the filmmakers less concerned with merely fulfilling their basic narrative objectives - the animation design is often startlingly beautiful, and once again John Powell's score is truly magnificent. It's this level of artistry that reminds the viewer of what was within these movies' grasp, and of what they have too frequently elected to fall short.
I'll admit, though, that there was likely little that The Hidden World could do to definitively turn me off, so winning are its finest qualities, which remain in abundance. American major studio animation at its best ought to create new, wondrously imaginative worlds to which I can hardly wait to return, and the How to Train Your Dragon franchise has certainly accomplished this. Pushing past the jarring convergence of the character's alternately Scottish and American accents, there's a strong sense of place to this picture, its landscapes evocatively designed, and its eye for congruous cultural detail imbuing its smaller, less adventurous moments with enriching purpose. Primary among its attributes, however, is Toothless, the titular dragon. He remains one of modern animation's most winning creations, and his development here - maturing in ways one might never have anticipated upon first acquaintance, nearly nine years ago - betrays none of the details that have made this character one of the most lovable in recent cinema history.
This being a closing chapter in the trilogy, then, you might expect a dramatic resolution, perhaps with a moving emotional send-off... and your expectations might thus be met. It's indicative of The Hidden World's minor failings of ambition that this element of it, while inevitably tragic, is arguably not quite as moving as it perhaps could have been. It feels unkind, though, to criticize a movie for not wringing out as many tears as you think it could have - I welled up more than once, and can certainly convince myself to do so again if I think hard enough about it. Toothless has a place in my heart, and maybe these filmmakers bulldozed their way in there through hackneyed, manipulative means, but they got him into that shrivelled, stony little heart all the same, and I can but love him as a result. It's somewhat beside the point to bemoan what they could have achieved had they set their minds to it; they set their own hearts to these stories, to these characters and these relationships, and it shows. In the end, I'll miss these movies, and that's achievement enough for any franchise.