‘How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World’ Soars to New Heights

***This article originally appeared in the March ‘19 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 288)***

It’s been nine years since DreamWorks Animation’s epic adaptation of Cressida Cowell’s book series How to Train Your Dragon set new standards of excellence in terms of storytelling, complexity of characters and masterful cinematic CG animation. This month, the third and final chapter of the trilogy about the adventures of a likeable young Viking named Hiccup and his majestic black dragon Toothless reaches its inevitable conclusion.

Directed and written by the brilliant Dean DeBlois, who masterminded the trilogy from the beginning, How to Train Dragon: The Hidden World is the culmination of a decade of exquisite craftsmanship and the technical marvels created by the team at DreamWorks Animation. Not surprisingly, the film sparkles with numerous instances of sheer magic, and it manages to deliver a conclusion that is satisfying, believable and dazzlingly powerful.

How to Train Dragon: The Hidden World

How to Train Dragon: The Hidden World

The Hidden World picks up a short time after the second movie, and we find Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) having to lead a relocation of the entire tribe and all the dragons after the arrival of a new villain named Grimmel (a menacing F. Murray Abraham). Meanwhile, Toothless finds himself distracted by a beautiful, shimmering female white dragon known as Light Fury, which adds much levity — and a beautiful sequence of poetic flight featuring the romantic pair.

The creative wheels to plan the third movie began turning right after the first film became a huge hit for the studio, says DeBlois during a recent interview. “I was asked to come up with ideas for the sequel,” he notes. “I am not a huge fan of sequels if they don’t have a real purpose, but we had enough unanswered questions and possible storylines to create a story with three distinct acts that told the evolution of these characters. After the second movie was released in 2014, I started working on outlines and treatment the fall of that year. I went through a full draft of the script, and development art was being done at the same time. Then in the spring of 2016, we had a draft that we felt good about, and we’ve been working on it since then.”

Ending on a High Note
DeBlois says the toughest aspect of this massive undertaking was tied to the inspiration for the third movie. “When I talked to the author, Cressida [Cowell], about what happens to the dragons, she was also working on the last book,” he recalls. “Our narratives are different, but the ideas were similar. It needed to have an epic conclusion that had mystery and emotion. But the main challenge is, how do we deal with the fact that the dragons go away, and that our favorite duo become separated? We didn’t want to upset the fans and didn’t want the movie to be a downer. We had to bring the audience with us and to have them reach the same conclusion that Hiccup and the Vikings had to let the dragons run free at the end.”

In terms of the film’s thrilling visuals, DeBlois says he and the visual development team didn’t want the dragons’ ancestral home to be just a dragon’s nest. “It needed to be a real world,” he notes. “Our production designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent did a lot of exploration work on this world that saw it as a network of tunnels and chambers that weave beneath the ocean floor and even beneath the continents, with the idea that this could traverse the globe, and this particular access point is at the base of an undersea volcano.”

DeBlois mentions that the idea actually stemmed from a dream he had about about a hole under the sea. “We thought about it and then figured it could be the gaping mouth of a volcanic culvert with water pouring in, like a 360-degree Niagara Falls,” he explains. “Then, should you fly down into it, it will open up into this vast network of bioluminescent fungi. Because the atmosphere would be so steamy with salt water interacting with magma, perhaps even coral could grow in midair. It would give you this fanciful, otherworldly feel, but within the understanding we all have of physics, biology and geology. We tried to make it as believable and credible within our world as we could but at the same time, make it feel very magical.”

How to Train Dragon: The Hidden World

How to Train Dragon: The Hidden World

For production designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent (affectionately known as P.O.V.), it was also crucial to make this new world as tangible and credible as possible. “In CG animation, we rely on technology, and through the years, this technology keeps evolving,” he points out. “It allowed us to make our visuals even more dramatic and bring this reality to the world of Vikings and the fantasy world of the dragons. We can create these fun locations, but we also require a huge amount of information to realize these experiences. We always have this in mind — to put everything on the screen so that audiences can have these unique immersive experiences.”

A Female Dragon of Mystery
The third movie’s pièce de résistance is the introduction of the majestic new female dragon that steals Toothless’ heart. “When Dragon 2 came out, fans were creating this white version of Toothless online, and it seemed that we had to follow through,” remembers Vincent. “Light Fury is all about subtleties. When you are lighting a CG animated movie, there’s nothing worse than dealing with an all-black or all-white character. You have to find these little subtleties. We couldn’t just take Toothless and turn it white. Light Fury had to have its complete own design. When you put the two of them next to each other in profile, you can see the differences. She is leaner, yet more powerful.”

The courtship between Light Fury and Toothless plays a major part in the film’s storyline. It also provides the movie with some of its magnificent, poetic sequences. Vincent says the team worked hard to make sure each sequence had its own imprint, but the one featuring the two dragons in love is his personal favorite. “They have this romantic flight which takes them through the clouds and inside a tornado,” he mentions. “I pitched it to Dean early on, and I remember his face. He was thinking, ‘Are you mad?’ But then he eventually agreed with me, and we designed it and added some light to the scene, and I’m so glad that we tried it and Dean loved it, too. After all, what’s terrifying for humans can be very romantic for dragons.”

How to Train Dragon: The Hidden World

How to Train Dragon: The Hidden World

An Awkward Dance
Another great scene involves Toothless’ early stabs at courting Light Fury, which are showcased in a wordless sequence featuring the memorable music of John Powell. DeBlois says he had discovered that there is a great power in scenes that are driven by music and pantomime animation. “Not only do we avoid characters talking for a while, which is a break on the ears — these sequences seem to transcend,” says the director. “This is a companion piece to the ‘Forbidden Friendship’ in the first movie, where Hiccup first meets Toothless. Here we have Toothless, who is unprepared to flirt with a potential mate, looking to Hiccup for cues and advice on how to woo Light Fury. Of course, it’s a disaster, as he’s a bumbling amateur, but he has to trust his own gut. That sequence was boarded by Bolhem Bouchiba, and it was actually one of the first sequence that we animated and went into production.”

DeBlois says the evolution of technology enabled the team to try things and depict characters and situations that were considered danger zones in the past. “We have interactions with amorphous forms, like water clouds or even characters walking through tall grass, which used to be effects nightmares as they were both difficult and time consuming,” he points out. “We work with our ray tracing renderer Moonray, which allows us to deliver these final frames in a speedy, cost-effective way. Our animators can work very quickly now and use tools that are far more intuitive than they were in the past. It all means that when I’m writing the movie, I don’t need to put any restrictions on what I can imagine to put on the screen.”

How to Train Dragon: The Hidden World

How to Train Dragon: The Hidden World

Vincent, whose many DreamWorks credits include the two previous Dragon movies, Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, Flushed Away and The Croods, says he and his team gave their all to create the movie’s beautiful, artistic crescendo. “When you work at a big studio, you get to work with many of the same people you have worked with before,” he says. “With the Dragon movies, we see them get better and better, and you strive to raise the bar each and every time together.”

The production designer says access to all the new technologies translated to earlier involvement of the CG team. “On this movie, for example, I asked Philippe Brochu — who has great CG skills — to get involved earlier in the design stage. So, instead of designing in 2D, I would do sketches and he would treat them as rough shapes in space. It wasn’t rendered completely, but it was very important to share these with everyone. We did that for every single location — we had about 20 in the movie altogether. We can still start the design process with sketches and doodles, but we need to test them in the final CG medium early on.”

New Territories
Joining DeBlois and the team at DreamWorks for the third movie was producer Brad Lewis, who is best known for producing acclaimed movies such as Antz, Ratatouille, The LEGO Batman Movie and Storks. “I knew that it wasn’t going to be an easy task, because you have to bring things to a completion point,” says Lewis. “It’s not just a sequel or a new episode. This is the closing chapter where we have to leave Hiccup and Toothless forever.”

How to Train Dragon: The Hidden World

How to Train Dragon: The Hidden World

Lewis brings up the fact that the third movie also features a terrifying new villain who is ruthless and dangerously smart. “We introduced Grimmel, who is a psychological villain. He doesn’t have any superpowers to hurt everyone, but he is able to outwit his prey psychologically. We also had to continue the romantic relationship between Hiccup and Astrid [America Ferrera] as well as introduce the one between Toothless and Light Fury. Hiccup and Astrid had to earn their marriage just as they needed to evolve to become the rightful leaders of Berk.” Astrid is voiced again by America Ferrera.

The veteran producer says he got into the entertainment business because he loved to laugh and cry and feel emotionally inspired in theaters. “When an animated movie is working on all cylinders, you feel all those things. That’s what I feel about The Hidden World. This movie puts audiences through a wide range of emotions and you feel really transported and surprised. It’s an incredible achievement.”

How to Train Dragon: The Hidden World

How to Train Dragon: The Hidden World

Timeless Qualities
Looking back at the 10-year experience of the trilogy, Vincent says there are certain things that truly stand out in his memory. “I think working with cinematographer Roger Deakins really made the movies special, as he was the main inspiration for the lighting,” he notes. “But at the heart of everything was the different take we had on the characters. There are a lot of movies that have adolescent heroes that have a lot of attitude and think they are smarter than everyone else. I never thought that was appealing. For a lot of people, including myself, adolescence was an awkward, difficult period. I am very happy that Hiccup was different. He was struggling and was stressing out to find the best version of himself.”

He adds, “I think that’s why we received so much mail from fans that were telling us they could relate to Hiccup. Children with disabilities and veterans wrote to thank us for creating this character, who was also handicapped. The movie had this really powerful message, asking this question, ‘If you have only one shot in life, how do you become the best version of yourself?’”

How to Train Dragon: The Hidden World

How to Train Dragon: The Hidden World

DeBlois echoes his sentiments. Looking at what he’s achieved over the years, the director, who received two Annies and two Oscar nominations for the first two Dragon movies and co-directed Disney’s 2002 hit feature Lilo & Stitch, says he doesn’t believe in second guessing the audience. “At no point did we want to make a movie just for kids,” he recalls. “We wanted to make a movie that we would want to see, and we put as much of our collective senses of humor, love of wonder, action and adventure into it as we could. We’re so thankful that we’ve had such a great reaction with the fans. Ultimately, it comes down to making a movie that you believe in and that would be a movie that you would pay to see.”

Of course, there’s also the undeniable appeal of dragons. “A big part of it is that we have a story about this regular kid who has his flaws and doesn’t fit in, and he forms this powerful relationship with this mythical beast. There’s the wish fulfillment element because every kid dreams of having an amazing pet that they could crawl on its back and fly. That’s the stuff of movies and something everyone wants to see!” he concludes modestly.

DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World opens Stateside on February 22.

Dean DeBlois

Dean DeBlois

Pierre Olivier Vincent

Pierre Olivier Vincent