How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World ends with a goodbye, the emotional parting of ways between runt-Viking-turned-noble-leader Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and his trusty companion dragon, Toothless. Then, there’s another, unexpected hello.
After all their years together, Hiccup realizes that the human-dragon coexistence that he wants comes at the expense of Toothless and his kind. So, to an overture of sniffles in movie theaters across the country where the third—and final—installment in the How to Train Your Dragon franchise played this weekend, the best friends say farewell.
That was supposed to be the end of it, director and writer Dean DeBlois told me when we met just before the last act of his trilogy premiered last week. But if you’ve seen the film—and, for the love of Valka, stop reading if you haven’t—you know there’s more.
The film flashes forward to reveal a married Hiccup and Astrid (America Ferrera) on another adventure together, but this time with two adorable kids. And who do they meet but Toothless and his family. Everyone is skittish at first—the children, who grew up in a world without dragons, especially—until it becomes clear that Toothless recognizes his old friend, even after all these years.
He tackles Hiccup and showers him with affection, and the families, at least for one more time, go soaring through the skies together.
“In the earliest iteration of it was a little more of a true parting of ways,” DeBlois explained. “The movie ended with him standing on that bluff and the dragons were gone.”
It was bittersweet, but paid respect to how the film’s young audience had matured with the franchise since its 2010 debut. You know that life is going to be different for these friends, but their lives will always be richer for having known one another.
While he was mapping out the three-acts of the planned trilogy, DeBlois often referred to films like The Fox and the Hound, E.T., and Born Free, which echo that idea of disparate characters who have a profound effect on one another even though they part ways.
He and a team of his collaborators were steadfast about ending the film with Hiccup staring out on the bluff as Toothless flies away, but then his boss threw his Born Free reference back in his face. In the 1966 movie, an orphaned lion cub is rehabilitated by humans and sent into the wild. A year later, the humans return, and are delighted to find, in an emotional reunion scene, that the lion remembers them.
“There’s something heartwarming about reassuring the audience, especially the young audience, that it was for the best, that both parties thrived in their absence,” DeBlois said, also referencing the heartwarming Christian the Lion story. “[My boss] was pointing out that we’re going to have a lot of kids in our audience. Do you really want to send them out with that sort of cerebral bummer, or do you want to celebrate?”
Once he started screening The Hidden World for audiences and heard them gasp with excitement and coo at the realization they were being treated to their favorite characters’ offspring, DeBlois knew they had made the right decision.
In another alternate universe, in fact, the audience may have seen more of the characters at that age. There was a five-year jump between the events of the first How to Train Your Dragon and the first sequel. He had considered doing the same jump again for The Hidden World and catching up with Hiccup as a 25-year-old, or perhaps even older.
“I felt, for our demographic, that we might lose connection by making him too old,” he said. “They might feel less connected to him if he’s suddenly a young parent and dealing with the issues of a 30-year-old instead of where he was, still awkward and gangly and a rookie at his job.”
Given that, he was happy to have the opportunity to imagine a future Hiccup, filled out and with facial hair, if only for a little bit. “He looks pretty good with a beard, doesn’t he?”