If you keep telling stories about the same characters, eventually you're going to end up buried under your own lore. This can be frustrating for a writer. Just ask Arthur Conan Doyle, who, after several dozen stories and novels, tried to retire Sherlock Holmes by tossing him off a waterfall. (It didn't work, of course. Doyle brought Holmes back from the watery grave eight years later.)
As everyone from Doyle to the Star Trek writers have learned, you either end up ignoring your characters' past or letting it inform their growth. There's a big temptation to just hit the reset button, so we can watch our unchanging heroes overcome the same adversity, only this time with a bigger special effects budget. But that's not why we tell stories. Our heroes should grow and change with us — especially childhood heroes.
I'm not sure animator Dean DeBlois thought he was going to be fleshing out the life story of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III when he and co-director Chris Sanders created How to Train Your Dragon for DreamWorks Animation in 2010. If he had, they probably would have rethought the names. It's been nine years. Shouldn't we know how to train these darn things by now? Does the third installment, The Hidden World, introduce advanced dragon training techniques?
Turns out, yes, it kind of does. Instead of just thinking up some new, wacky adventures for Hiccup and his dragon Toothless to get up to, DeBlois (who has sole writing credit, a rarity for one of these monster productions) lets the consequences of the last film sink in. Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), who started off as a bumbling weakling in need of draconic pedagogy, has now ascended to the chiefdom of the wacky Viking village of Berk. Toothless, the dragon he tamed instead of killing as a child, has also ascended leadership, to become the alpha dragon of the growing colony at Berk.
The film begins with a visual flourish as a fleet of great, dark ships emerge from a pea soup fog. It's a very Game of Thrones image that telegraphs this film's more mature attitude. Hiccup and his crew, including Astrid (America Ferrera), Gobber (Craig Ferguson), and Snotlout (Jonah Hill), swoop down from the night to rescue a load of dragons from draconic traffickers bent on building a fire-breathing army.
At first glance, the idyllic village of colorful, soaring dragon perches and jolly, vaguely Scandinavian huts seems to be a happy land. (Potential dragon dung issues are not addressed.) But Hiccup struggles to maintain the peace he won between beasts and humans, and the outside world is increasingly suspicious of the dragonriders. The evil Warlord slavers hire Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), an infamous hunter of Dark Furies like Toothless, to rid them of the troublesome alpha, thus leaving Berk defenseless, and their cages full. To complete the parallel stories of young chief and young dragon king, Grimmel uses a captive female Light Fury to lure Toothless into a trap, just as Hiccup and Astrid are facing pressure from the tribe to tie the knot. Under the threat of imminent invasion, Hiccup and Toothless lead a search for the legendary hidden homeland of the dragons, where they hope to find safe haven.
When a hero gets made king, it's usually just a reward for the end of the story. It's not often that we get to see those heroes go on to make hard, kingly choices. For a film where the character designs teeter on the edge of the uncanny valley, DeBlois treats his hero more like Jon Snow than a guy named Hiccup. There's still some wacky moments with Snotlout and Gobber, but the film's heart really isn't in the kiddie comedy this time around. DeBlois and the DreamWorks animators instead put their energy into a wordless sequence where Toothless tries to woo Light Fury with a dragon mating dance, with Hiccup playing silent Cyrano in the bushes. It's a beautiful sequence that references Fantasia — and kind of a daring move for a genre that is obsessed with forward motion to keep the kids' attention. But the kids who first discovered How to Train Your Dragon are teenagers now, contemplating their place in the world, and their animated friends have grown up with them.