You never know which trilogy will, in fact, call it quits after round three. After that viciously sentimental and ruthlessly prolonged farewell in Disney-Pixar’s “Toy Story 3,” for example, you might assume that goodbye means goodbye. But the movie made a billion plus change worldwide, which means “goodbye” is really “why would we leave?” And “Toy Story 4” comes out this summer.
So who’s to say if “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” will be the last of its ilk? I’m torn. I kind of hope it isn’t the last, since the three DreamWorks Animation “Dragon” moves, in the aggregate, have done their job in style. The future’s not ours to see, as the song says, but a few years from now I’d be happy to revisit this franchise. Which is more than I can say for “Ice Age.”
Then again: I kind of hope this is goodbye. Though not quite up to its predecessors, writer-director Dean DeBlois lands the sequel very nicely, on a warm and gratifying resolution to the tale of Hiccup, the improbable Viking leader, and Toothless, the inky-black dragon who has been his friend, protector and fetching machine since the first “Dragon” movie in 2010.
The key word in “Dragon 3” is “bustle.” The town of Berk, where dragons (formerly hunted by the Vikings) and humans coexist peaceably, has become dangerously overcrowded. There’s a new enemy afoot: the dragon slayer Grimmel. There’s a new quest: Hiccup and his reluctant cohorts set out to find the hidden world where the dragons can live on their own, away from deadly human intervention.
As before, the voice work excels. Jay Baruchel’s Hiccup, America Ferrera’s Astrid (they’re a full-on couple now, picking up a year after the second movie’s timeline) and Kristen Wiig’s amusingly aggravating Ruffnut lead a busy ensemble. F. Murray Abraham’s vaguely Lugosi-esque intonations as Grimmel may be slightly at odds with the Max Von Sydow-ish visualization of the antagonist, but whatever.
With crack cinematographer Roger Deakins continuing his role as visual adviser, “Dragon 3” pours on the lavishly imagined scenes of flame-based mass destruction. There are also several lyric interludes of flight, and an extended goo-goo-eyed sequence of adorable dragon courtship. I like the wordless sequences, though they’re slightly attenuated. The comic relief among Hiccup’s peers could use a little comic relief, but verbal wit never was this franchise’s strong suit.
Its strong suit is just as valuable, though. Despite a routine middle section, “Dragon 3” starts and ends with a strong, simple emotional bond between humans and dragons. The way screenwriter DeBlois imagines this Viking universe, the name of the game is animal rescue, and the thrill of open-air dragon gliding. The hidden-world portion of the finale resembles “Avatar,” for better or worse. The boy-and-his-dragon love story resembles a million previous stories more typically involving a dog, or a horse.
From the beginning, the animators got something very, very right with Toothless, who works with an artificial tail just as his human friend works with a prosthetic leg. He’s adorable, yes, of course. But he’s not conventionally flawless, and he’s all the better for that.
Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.
“How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” — 3 stars
MPAA rating: PG (for adventure action and some mild rude humor)