The How to Train Your Dragon series has shaped up to be quite the crowning jewel for DreamWorks Animation. The studio swivels between successful franchises and ludicrous disasters—for every Shrek and Kung Fu Panda, there’s a Bee Movie and a Boss Baby in between. With How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World concluding Hiccup and Toothless’ story, perhaps we should expect something terrible on the horizon.

The Hidden World picks up about a year after the second film, but worry not, Hiccup stills sounds like a prepubescent Jay Baruchel. Things are looking utopian around Berk: Hiccup is the chief of the village, Toothless is the king of the dragons, and the partnership between their two worlds has created a productive society. Hiccup and his troupe of supporting characters spend their time freeing enslaved dragons and bringing them to Berk to join as pets/transportation/workforce. Needless to say, dragon enslavers are not happy with this quest, and they hire an infamous dragon hunter to capture Toothless—a loss that would cripple chief Hiccup.

If that sounds somewhat similar to the plot of How to Train Your Dragon 2, that’s because it is—just like the plot of How to Train Your Dragon 2 was somewhat similar to the plot of the first film. Hiccup faces a personal tragedy, Toothless is in danger of capture, Berk is threatened by a serious change in the status quo, and somebody really needs to be convinced that dragons are misunderstood. At least, I can assure you, there’s no climactic faceoff against a giant dragon. The How to Train Your Dragon movies are all well made, but they’re not all that different.

Sameness isn’t the only nagging issue that carries over into The Hidden World. Writer/director Dean Deblois still caters to younger viewers by peppering the screenplay with juvenile humor, no matter how badly it clashes with the movie’s grownup tone. Worse is the expository dialogue: like the first two movies, The Hidden World has its characters discuss plot points and thematic arcs before they happen, practically begging you to predict the entire story. Not even children need that much spoon-feeding.

None of these weaknesses are any weaker than usual, though, and the franchise’s strengths are stronger than ever. The animation is stunning and seamless, the character and creature design is bursting with unique touches, and the score is monumentally rousing. Each movie in the series has been more epic in scale than the last, and The Hidden World continues that trend: crafted under the guidance of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, the battles and locales are truly sights to behold. Deblois has finally figured out how best to use the stellar supporting cast as well.

When The Hidden World gets past its rehash of “dragons are monsters” vs. “dragons are friends”, it takes its narrative in a surprisingly mature direction, questioning the very core—and title—of the series. The dragons have always been stand-ins for real-life pets, and The Hidden World has thoughtful notions about how we should treat the animals we keep. Its message is particularly poignant for a franchise finale. This new direction also puts a bigger emphasis on the movie’s human relationships, though, causing the series’ biggest flaw to flare up: its treatment of Hiccup’s girlfriend Astrid. How to Train Your Dragon has rarely developed Astrid into anything more than a motivation machine for Hiccup. It’s hard to care about the romance between protagonist and plot device.

Even though it doesn’t remedy the franchise’s missteps, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is still the finest entry in DreamWorks Animation’s most consistent series. Like the first two, it’s better than one would expect, but it’s just shy of excellence.

★★★★   (4/5)