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It’s franchise time (when is it not) at the multiplex this weekend, though it’s not another superhero sequel or an even faster, more furious action series installment. No, this is fairly unique to this new century, this is an animated feature franchise. Back when Walt Disney made the first Hollywood cartoon features, sequels weren’t considered, rather the folks at the “Mouse House’ were well into the next iconic fable. That was still the case for many years after “Uncle Walt” left his kingdom, though THE RESCUERS returned a dozen years later. Sequels were mainly the domain of the “direct to home video” market (mocked in some circles as “cheap-quels”). Pixar changed this in 1999 when they too were making a home video follow-up to their first hit, TOY STORY, and then decided that it was deserving of a theatrical release (brilliant move). One of their main rivals, Dreamworks Animation, followed suit with a SHREK series. Now the studio is instead thinking “trilogy”, as in the “Lord of the Rings” and “The Hobbit” with their two most visually ambitious (and dramatically mature) properties. 2008’s KUNG FU PANDA was the first such, concluding three years ago. Now comes the last chapter of the story that began with one of 2010’s biggest hits, HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD.

Much like action or spy thrillers, this film begins with a big action set piece (almost the “slam-bang” finale of another story). It’s a dragon rescue mission against a band of nefarious “trappers” Leading the charge is Viking chief Hiccup (voice of Jay Baruchel) astride his faithful dragon steed, the Night Fury known as Toothless. At his side are his mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) and paramour Astrid (America Ferrera), along with their pals Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and the twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple). The captured dragons (save for a very special one) are released and lead back to the haven known as Berk by the victorious rescuers. But as pointed out by Hiccup’s trusted consel since childhood, Gobbler (Craig Ferguson), the town precariuosly perched on mountain peaks may not have room for this dragon influx. Plus, more trappers could strike. Hiccup then recalls the stories his late father Stoick (Gerard Butler) told of the original dragon homeland, the “hidden world” where they lived in peaceful harmony. As Hiccup tries to piece together an old map showing its location, the trappers are plotting. They recruit the ruthless and cruel Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham) who has a secret weapon: a female Night Fury (Toothless was thought to be the last of his kind). When he leads his forces on a raid against Berk, Hiccup makes a momentous decision to pack up the village and find that “hidden world”. Will Grimmel thwart his quest? And what will happen with Toothless and his possible “mate”? Could Hiccup lose both his kingdom and his best dragon pal?

With nearly a decade voicing these roles, this stellar cast still brings something “new to the table”. The most compelling character arc belongs to Baruchel, who has gone from jittery, uncertain teen to the confident, smart leader of his team and his community (pop Stoick would be beaming). He may face the most challenging decision, one that pushes him into adulthood. Namely, he must choice what’s best for others (mainly Toothless), knowing the loss he will certainly feel. Speaking of feelings, the attraction between Hiccup and Astrid, voiced with great energy by the terrific Ferrera, at last blossoms from teenage infatuation to mutual love and respect. The two make a formidable romantic pair and fighting team that’s put to the test by this story’s very hissable major “meanie”, Grimmel. Abraham oozes arrogance and contempt for nearly all those around him (even his aides), with a slight sneer as his only hint of joy. Full disclodure: during the film, I was certain the voice came from Ciaran Hinds since Grimmel’s features are a superb bald caricature of the actor (I judged a book it’s cover or character desgn). Most of the rest of the cast provide great comic releief, particularly Ferguson as the gregarious and somewhat paranoid Gobbler (he sees bug-eyed beasties everywhere). And Wiig as the grumbling sullen Ruffnut who becomes a blithe grating chatterbox when captured by Grimmel’s forces (her blathering pushes him to the breaking point).

As with the previous two films, the viewer is dazzled by the imaginative character designs and marvelous sets (Berk, the trappers’ ships) from this impressive group of artists headed by the director of all three (teamed with Chris Sanders on the first) Dean DeBlois (who wrote this screenplay based on the book series by Cressida Cowell). Hiccup’s heroes first appear clad in the discarded scales (yes, they shed) of their dragon partners, prompting the trappers to think that they’re demons (Hiccup’s cool flaming sword adds to that belief, no doubt). Much like the Vikings we’ve seen previously, the trappers are lumbering man mountains, somehow able to snatch a rider off their steeds. The teetering towers of Berk are still a child-like toy delight (just keep piling on and on and…), but it’s often too much “eye candy” as the camera swoops in, around, up, and down with increasing velocity. The sight of those winged dragons zipping miles above the Earth still elicits a soaring sense of wonder, while keeping us on the edge of our seats as the riders are often caught in a perilous plummet. The visuals fly rings around the often stodgy, slow moving script. Two prolonged mating dances are in dire need of a trim. And some attempts at edgy humor (Snotlout openly lusts for Hiccup’s Mum Valka, as Tuffnut presses Hiccup to his chest in order to nuzzle his lush “beard”-like ponytales) seem wildly out of tune in an all-ages fantasy. Still, it’s final act is very moving and admirable, when the nearly ten-year-old tale comes full circle, as the film makers offer a real conclusion to the film trilogy, three TV shows, and quartet of shorts. Of course, the dreaded “reboot” is always a possibility (going on right now with that big green ogre), but lets hope that Hiccup and Toothless can enjoy the last trek through the skies in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON: THE HIDDEN WORLD. Nighty night lil’ Furies.

3.5 Out of 5

Jim Batts was a contestant on the movie edition of TV's "Who Wants to be a Millionaire" in 2009 and has been a member of the St. Louis Film Critics organization since 2013.

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