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How to Train Your Dragon 3 review: Very nearly perfect

Despite one minor shadow, the final film in the 3D-animated trilogy brings the story of boy meets dragon to a shining, satisfying conclusion.

Universal Pictures

The first two How to Train Your Dragon films have long been regarded as greats of 3D animation.

Not only were they Pixar competitors at the Oscars, they introduced the best kid-friendly dragon since Pete's. All puppy-like adorableness, Toothless, the innocent young dragon at the center of the films, melts hearts without breathing a single flame.

More than in past films, Toothless is at the core of director Dean DeBlois' final entry to the trilogy that kicked off in 2010. An older Hiccup the Viking, boy hero of the films, and his dependable dragon must come to terms with their future in a dangerous world where a long-term solution for peace is at stake.

And DeBlois succeeds in almost every way possible. Continuing a series-long focus on family and love, How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World narrows on what those values mean for Toothless. He experiences romance. He grows up. And with heavy, satisfied hearts, we let him, and Hiccup, go.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World soars into cinemas Jan. 3 in Australia, Feb. 1 in the UK and Feb. 22 in the US.  

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Toothless the dragon and Hiccup the Viking (Jay Baruchel).

Universal Pictures

One year on from the defeat of king dragon-trapper Drago, Chief Hiccup (an ever voice-crackly Jay Baruchel) has transformed his Viking village into the world's first dragon utopia. The sight of his home Berk brings Hogwarts-levels of awe, its green cliff-side layered with wooden nests that spit out colourful dragons by the second.

Hiccup, his friends and his mother Valka (Cate Blanchett) have formed a hodgepodge band of dragon rescuers. They attempt a stealth mission on one of the trapper barges in the surrounding sea, where they unexpectedly encounter a Light Fury, a rare glittery dragon close to Toothless' kind.

This gives way to the best scene of the film. Toothless attempts a courting ritual, spurred on by Hiccup hidden in the shrubbery. If it was possible to love a 3D-animated creature any further, Toothless proves it. As he tries to win over the Light Fury, he hops, dances, frowns and overexerts himself to hilarious, endearing effect.

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Toothless and the Light Fury.

Universal Pictures

More serious themes test man and dragon's relationship. While Toothless grapples with a call to the wild, Chief Hiccup must make the big adult decisions commensurate with his royal status. Marriage to girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera) is on the cards and Berk faces an overpopulation problem, forcing Hiccup to consider searching for and moving to the Hidden World, the mythical home of the dragons.

Making matters worse is Grimmel the Grizzly, the cleverest dragon trapper of the lot, whose tricks are a welcome change from big boss battles. Grimmel, voiced with eloquent aplomb by F. Murray Abraham, brings Hiccup's self-confidence to its lowest.

Enter Astrid. While her constant support of Hiccup is necessary for his growth, she sees little character development of her own. Flawlessly tough, she's underserved throughout the series.

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Astrid (America Ferrara), Hiccup and Toothless.

Universal Pictures

The How to Train Your Dragon films have never shied away from darker themes of pacifism, complex family relationships and discrimination. These notes will soar over little ones' heads, and the exhilarating dragon battles threaten frightening levels of violence.

Yet the films counter those shadows at every turn. Rambunctious Vikings and their goofy dragons keep the hijinks and one-liners coming. Cast members Kristen Wiig, T.J. Miller, Craig Ferguson and Jonah Hill all have their moments to shine.

There's no greater gift than love, we're constantly told in Viking land, and it's never more powerful than here. Hiccup and Toothless have parallel journeys: they fall in love and learn the sacrifices required to lead their people. They grow in years and maturity over the smartly paced trilogy. With notes of Toy Story 3's poignant ending, their milestones well and truly hit home.

How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is a near perfect trilogy ender, safely landing an occasionally kid-unfriendly dragon ride. A story about a boy and his best friend, its timeless values are delivered with spadefuls of wit and epic adventure. After three brilliant rides, we bid farewell to one of the best film trilogies of all time.

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