We could have been having this conversation three years ago. That’s when How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World was originally going to fly into theatres. But, in that time, it’s had a long, interesting road to the big screen, much like the main characters.
In the five years since the release of the second film, How to Train Your Dragon 2, The Hidden World has been delayed three times. First from 2016 to 2017, then 2017 to 2018, and finally to its release this year.
And while writer/director Dean DeBlois explained most of that was because DreamWorks Animation was purchased by Comcast, meaning it had to wait on government approvals and whatnot, he feels 2019 was the right time for the movie to come out.
“I think we were just being too ambitious with our original target,” DeBlois told our sister site io9 over the phone last week. “We had talked about doing Dragon 2 and 3 simultaneously, or at least back to back. And it just...that was us being overly optimistic and naive. We definitely had all hands on board to finish the second movie and then we needed to go back to the basics and spend time with the outline and the early drafts before we could assemble that crew again.”
In the beginning, DeBlois never thought any of this was even possible. When he and Chris Sanders were brought onto the first How to Train Your Dragon movie, they were given a little over a year to “rework the story” with an immovable release date. They weren’t thinking sequel at all. Just make a great movie. That quickly changed.
“When the film came out and it was a success for the studio that’s when they talked about the sequel,” DeBlois said. “And, due to my general allergy to sequels, I said ‘What if we do the three-act story? Three installments so it’s tracking Hiccups’ coming of age from that Viking runt to the wise, selfless chief he was destined to be, and in the process lead to the disappearance of dragons?’”
In the very first book of the original series by Cressida Cowell, Hiccup says “There were dragons when I was a boy,” subtly revealing everything you’re reading does, at some point, go away. And once DeBlois knew he was making three movies, that was his cherry on top of it all.
“From the time that we decided to do a trilogy I wanted to end with the opening lines of Cressida’s first book,” DeBlois said. “I thought that was very emotional and kind of mysterious but it had a really poignant quality to it.”
The writer/director also knew, soon after the first film, where the bulk of the series would go. “I had a fairly tight idea of how the second instalment would develop and each of our characters,” he said. “And then the third one, how it would lead us to, after spending two movies bringing dragons and humans together, lead to their separation and why and address that mystery.”
Within that framework, DeBlois had a very specific idea in mind for the type of movie he wanted The Hidden World to be, and it stems from the films he loved growing up.
“[I have] an admiration for stories where you have the bittersweet end of characters that have come together, that were of disparate backgrounds, that had such a profound effect on one another that even should they separate they will never be the same again,” DeBlois said.
“And I love that tradition of story, from E.T. to Harold and Maude, Fox and the Hound. There are so many examples out there of those transformational stories that I thought this, for me, felt like an opportunity to do it in our world and maybe add to that rich tradition.”
He also knew if he was to build Hiccup into the legendary leader he was born to be, he’d need his exact opposite as a villain in the third instalment. And so that became Grimmel, an evil dragon hunter with a nasty, unfortunately all-too-familiar point of view.
“It felt like a natural contrast for Hiccup, being a very inclusive progressive minded character...to bring in the sort of old-fashioned, intolerant character who’s a bit of an elitist and doesn’t want to share air with anything that he deems lesser than himself,” DeBlois said. “And yes. There’s certainly parallels to that in the world that we live in but it’s more just to diametrically oppose Hiccup’s point of view.”
Another opposing point of view was exactly what to call the movie. The first How to Train Your Dragon, released in 2010, was distributed by Paramount. The second, by Fox. Now, Universal is releasing the third film and, according to DeBlois, Universal doesn’t like numbers in their titles.
“Yeah I had naturally thought we’d be a ‘three’ because we’ve already established ‘two,’” he said. “[But Universal’s marketing] think there’s more intrigue and more identity in giving it subtitles...I think of it as ‘Dragon 3’ anyway.”
Now that The Hidden World (or “Dragon 3,” whatever you want to call it) is finally coming to theatres, DeBlois feels reflective. He’s spent the better part of a decade on one story and he wants to spread his wings a bit, much like his characters.
“I feel dominantly really proud of [the franchise], really,” he said. “It’s nice to have finished off a trilogy that that doesn’t disappoint in one of its installments. They all, more or less, kind of line up to tell one story and hold up the integrity of what was the original intent. So I’m proud of that. Also, it’s bittersweet to say goodbye to the characters and the world and to the people that worked on the films. But I’m ready for something new and you know something? It’s just exciting to be able to consider an entirely new story and perhaps even a new medium, maybe live action, for the next one.”