Updated: Mar 30, 2020
By Derek May:
YIN: How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
I shouldn’t be amazed at how all-around amazing animated films can be, but I still find myself continuously gobsmacked. These films take so long to develop, they have plenty of time to get it right. Plus, with the added expense and effort it takes to animate even a few seconds of film, you want to be 100% sure that what you’re spending that time and money on is the absolute best it can possibly be. That’s why you rarely see many cut scenes on your home bluray for animated fare.
Thus, making one incredible, nuanced, beautifully crafted animated feature is a magnificent achievement. But making three in a row—that’s just a Herculean feat! But damned if Dreamworks et al didn’t pull of exactly that with the third and seemingly final entry in the How to Train Your Dragon series: The Hidden World.
For a series based on the simple premise of a boy (Hiccup) and his dragon (Toothless), the creators have managed to mine a surprising amount of substance and growth with each entry. From the first film’s tackling of the quite mature theme of prejudice and living in peace through understanding, each sequel has upped the ante in terms of thematic and emotional exploration. With the previous film, we braved the gauntlet of love, loss, forgiveness, and rising to the call of leadership, especially as Hiccup became the Chief of Berk and Toothless the alpha dragon. This time, we delve even further, mining the meanings behind these roles, as well as learning the hardest lesson of all: letting go of those we care about most.
I wish I could just splay out spoilers, dissecting each lovely detail for the trove of intricacies buried within. But I’ll let you all discover these gems for yourself. Suffice to say that Hidden World extrapolates from the previous stories by asking the legitimate question: what happens when you’ve saved so many dragons that it becomes untenable—even with the best of intentions—for humans and dragons to co-exist? On top of all that, another villainous dragon-hunter is hot on their trail, eager to rid the world of the “scourge” of dragons. While that last part might sound a bit familiar, I once again refer to you my point about how cleverly discerning these storytellers can be—give them the benefit of the doubt here.
If there’s an overriding theme to The Hidden World it might be “finding new life.” Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) has developed into a fine and respected Chief, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have his doubters. And as a stream of new challenges arise, he finds himself in the unenviable position of having to choose between his people and his dragon friends. On top of that, he must begin to forge a life for himself with his beloved partner, the kindhearted warrior Astrid (America Ferrera). So where does that leave Hiccup and his best bud, Toothless?
Can two creatures who are quite literally dependent on each other be able to forge separate paths? That is the rub. But as Toothless becomes enamored with a female Light Fury, and begins to explore love on his own, he too wrestles with this very human dilemma.
Like I said, there’s a lot going on here!
Luckily, neither Hiccup nor Toothless must face these challenges alone. Hiccup’s mother, Valka (Cate Blanchett) and father Stoik (Gerard Butler) return with sage advice in their own unique ways. And of course, there’s always surrogate father Gobber (Craig Ferguson) ready to tell it like it is. Even the goofball sidekicks of Eret (Kit Harrington), Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig), and—most surprising of all—Tuffnut (Justin Rupple, taking over from the currently ostracized T.J. Miller) are there to express their support, such as it is, for Hiccup, and the community at large. And all will be needed to defeat Grimmel (the legendary F. Murray Abraham), an antagonist seemingly always a step ahead of Hiccup and company. Grimmel’s threat isn’t just physical, or cerebral, but reflective, as he may represent the flip side to Hiccup’s point of view, and quite possibly, be what Hiccup might have become if not for the love and support he’s benefitted from since the beginning.
Each actor truly brings their character to life in impressively rich ways, so much so that by this third movie you feel like you’re reuniting with old friends, yet still learning something new about each. While attention can vary, each character is absolutely given due, sometimes in a highlighted scene, sometimes in simple gags that further their development. What is clear is that the performers are all really enjoying their time, letting go and having fun with the roles. That joy shines through the digital faces and really engenders a sense of caring in the audience.
It seems almost a given to mention how good the animation is, but it’s important to remember that it’s been nearly a decade since the first film’s release, and each entry only raises the bar in terms of realistic effects. There are times here when you truly forget you’re watching animation, as the water, grass, fire, sets, and textures are so photo real they lull you into complete acceptance of this universe as our own. Even the peach fuzz smattering Hiccup’s cheeks throughout the film is such a light but powerful touch, symbolizing his continued growth.
But again, the bar for any movie is really how it makes you feel. I won’t lie, I was tearing up by the end of The Hidden World. Some were tears for the emotional roller coaster I just went through, some as a goodbye to friends moving on. It’s rare that any movie can make you feel that, let alone one without a single flesh-and-blood human being before you. But does it matter? When characters are properly developed, who cares if they’re people or pixels? It’s the time and effort spent making every word, gesture, look, and interaction on screen as meaningful, honest, and impactful as possible. It’s storytelling that invests the audience because of the time invested to really say something that matters to people. And here now, with the third film about a boy and his dragon, they’ve said everything they needed to.
Fly free, my friends.
YANG: Bigger: The Joe Weider Story
When you think bodybuilding, the first name that likely pops into your head is Arnold Schwarzenegger, and rightfully so. But really, if we’re talking about the sport—its development, its history, and its rise to global phenomenon—the name that should come to mind is Joe Weider. There’s no question Joe, along with his brother Ben and his wife Betty, were pioneers in an industry that that was mostly derided, if mot ignored, before them. So it’s natural that such a story would eventually be put to film . . . it’s just a shame it wasn’t given proper justice.
Bigger is essentially Joe Weider’s biography—as he likely would have seen it. It’s a rose-tinted tale of an underdog breaking down barriers, battling the naysayers around him, and practically single-handedly creating an empire. There’s some truth to all that, no doubt, but the film establishes a clearly heroic dynamic that history might disagree with. The wholly positive approach leads to the biggest (no pun intended) issue with the film: that despite several obstacles, there really are no stakes. The story is basically about a man with a dream, who runs into a few bumps, but in the end succeeds. There’s no real pressure to win other than desire, and even the clearest villain of the piece offers relatively little true impairment to the goal.
Director George Gallo is known mostly as a writer (Midnight Run, Bad Boys, Whole Ten Yards), and his experience behind the camera appears relatively unremarkable. And thus that might explain the incongruent tone throughout the film. There’s a definite sense of heightened reality. Occasionally there’s something of a wink to the audience, but overall it’s hard to tell how seriously we’re supposed to be taking it all. The movie frames the story with an aged Joe Weider recounting his experiences to a young journalist during his brother Ben’s funeral—odd to say the least. And while this explains the overwhelmingly anecdotal construction of the narrative, it doesn’t excuse it. The jumps from occurrence to occurrence are progressive in time, but not necessarily in drama. There is no real sense of heading towards anything concrete other than ephemeral “success,” which is ultimately achieved in the abstract.
But when you’re telling at tale that spans several decades, cities, people, and events, it’s understandable that some corners might be cut, some bits combined and truncated. That’s the nature of such pieces. So when these fall short, the only thing left to hang your hat on is the characters. And here again, we find little to engage with.
Tyler Hoechlin, who first came to my notice as an alpha werewolf on the MTV reboot of Teen Wolf, certainly has many physical similarities to young Joe. And I think Weider would be especially tickled that the man portraying him is also the current Superman on CW’s Supergirl. Having followed both shows, I’ve been on the whole impressed with Hoechlin’s abilities . . . to a point. He’s certainly gives his all here, tuning his voice to the odd mix of New York Yiddish that defined Joe’s speech, and does an admirable job presenting Joe’s almost autistic, deadpan manner. But aside from those qualities, and Joe’s insatiable desire for success, there’s not much to the man. His standoffish single-mindedness distances and often enrages those around him, but aside from one heartfelt scene, we don’t really see how this truly affects the man. Much of this lays at the feet of the writers, but in the end Hoechlin isn’t quite able to add anything more than what is scarcely presented on the page.
And how might we know for sure? Because veteran actor Robert Forester plays the aged Joe, and through his brief scenes manages to bring across that same somewhat cold demeanor with just an extra touch of humanity. If Hoechlin is wound tighter than a drum, Forester is loose as a goose, and disparity level of skill is palpable.
Regardless though, Joe is presented practically fully formed, and people are given the choice to love him or leave him. There’s little growth to be seen, no character arc traversed. He set out to do something and he did it—admirable for sure, but not cinematic.
We get a bit more range from the women in Joe’s life, though they are certainly treated as tangential to Joe himself. Victoria Justice has a short stint as Joe’s first wife, Kathy, who somewhat inexplicably pursues him with abandon, only to just as inexplicably drop him. The implication seems more that this is the tragedy of people not understanding poor Joe, but comes across more as lazy writing. When Joe decides to pursue Hollywood beauty Betty (Julianne Hough, Rock of Ages), he once again succeeds. This time, however, Hough manages to give some measure of dimension to Betty, and in that same critical scene mentioned before, expresses her frustrations at Joe’s lack of human connection. Hough continues to insert a bit of development here and there as she can, and thus we believe her as a true partner and confidant to Joe.
Most of the rest of the cast, however, falls by the wayside. The likes of Steve Guttenberg, Tom Arnold, Colton Hayes (a fellow Teen Wolf alum), and DJ Qualls all result in little more than cameos at best, filler at worst. One of my favorite actors, Kevin Durand (Dark Angel, Lost), certainly delivers a baddie in composite character Bill Hauk, rival fitness emperor, but was apparently told he was in comic book fantasy film rather than a biopic. His exaggeration of menace is cartoonish, undercutting his presence as a real threat. If Joe is the hero and Hauk the villain, we need more than quibbles and an occasional beatdown. We need a clear win/lose for them to fight over. That seemed to be the final bodybuilding showdown, but it was so poorly setup, so anti-climactic, and without any clear risk for the loser, that the ethereal battle between these two dissipated in as much smoke.
And in case you were wondering, yes, of course we have to have Arnold in the film. He’s portrayed by one of the most recognizable stars of the current bodybuilding scene, Australian Calum Von Moger (Generation Iron 2). With a 70’s haircut, gap-tooth dentures, and a perfectly matching physique, Von Moger looks the part in a way that’s almost scary. He even got the accent down disturbingly close without parodying it. Unfortunately, despite Von Moger’s efforts, the character of Arnold isn’t quite as authentic. Given Joe the hero, Weider is presented as tracking down with uncouth farm-boy from Austria and pushing him to excellence. If you know anything about Arnold at all, you know he doesn’t need pushing. What’s sad is that Joe and Arnold really did have an amazing relationship, helping each other build the sport to what it has become. Here, unfortunately, the connection is far more one-sided.
I’m the first to understand and admit how hard it is to pull off a proper biopic. So many over the years have tried and failed. I commend Gallo and his team for even considering bringing the story of such an icon to life. But as we must conclude, Bigger is not necessarily better, and good intentions do not a great film make. Perhaps one day we’ll see the story done right, but until then, this is one tale you can drop like dead weight.