ANNECY, France — “There were dragons, when I was a boy. Where they went, only a few know. Our story changed the world forever.”
Delivered in voiceover with lilting, slightly rasping nostalgia an old Hiccup, as Toothless glides out over a deep blue sea, the plain but poetic sentences kick off the trailer of “How to Train Your Dragon 3,” dropped last week by DreamWorks Animation, which director Dean Deblois screened a the very beginning of what will almost certainly be the most warmly received of Hollywood studio presentations at Annecy.
Plucked from Cressida Cowell’s book, the words will end the last film of the “Dragon” trilogy. On stage at Annecy Thursday, Deblois’ presentation of one of the world’s most awaited animation movies underscored the wowing visuals, larger scope, new inventions and characters, comedy and above all new rights of passage journey of Hiccup in “The Hidden World.”
A common sentiment of people coming out of DreamWorks Animation’s 80-minute sneak peek was that, if the film is as good as what was on display at Annecy, this could go better still, winning new converts to the Berk universe, and proving one of the crowning glories of DreamWorks Animation.
After Annecy, “The Hidden World’s” set-up, however, is slightly clearer. The main narrative takes place about a year after “Dragon 2.” Hiccup has created a Berk dragon-Viking utopia, but it’s near impossibly overcrowded and threatened by surviving warlords, holdovers from Drago’s army in “Dragon 2,” who hire the urbane, peroxide blonde, Scandinavia/Russian-accented Grimmel, who has killed all the other Night Furies out, save Hiccup’s. Then Toothless discovers an untamed mate, Light Fury, a svelte white and deep-blue eyed dragon, whom he courts, with Hiccup’s instructions, the Night Fury turning into a gauche cutie pie.
First, Deblois set out Hiccup’s character arc. All three pictures turn on “universal rights of passage,” Deblois said. The 2010 original charted Hiccup’s reconciliation with his father, the second with his mother, the third with himself.
“The Hidden World,” DeBlois said, is about “having the wisdom to let go of those security blankets and old ways, addressing your vulnerabilities that hold you back from blossoming into the person you are destined to be.”
“Ultimately there is growth in letting things go. Letting go of old ideas, insecurities and sometimes of those who need to blossom and follow their own destiny, and in doing so there is a great reward at the end, there is a transformation, an epiphany.”
He is referring of course to Hiccup and Toothless’ parting.
The line to get into “HTTTD 3” began forming, it’s said at 6 a.m for a 10 a.m. session. Deblois was roared on stage by the audience, which sometimes happens at Annecy. He drilled down on character wardrobe. But it’s vary rare that costume elicits a palpable gasp of approval from the festival crowd. That happened as Deblois unveiled Hiccup’s new look in “The Hidden World”: a sleek black dragon-scale armor suit, set off by red spaulders, and huge knee down greaves, set off by his metal-frame left leg. Such was the positive reaction of there Annecy crowd that the only question is if Hiccup could spark a new fashion line.
Technology also has moved, again. “HTTYD 2” was the first film at DWA to use its Premo animation and Torch lighting throughout the pipeline. In the past, “we had a bottle-neck, our ambition was great and our tools had promise, but at the end of the day we didn’t have enough time or processors to render 24 frames-per-minute for 90 minutes,” DeBlois said.
On “The Hidden World,” DreamWorks is pioneering Moonray, an extra-fast ray tracer which meant the filmmakers no longer had to shy away from things famously difficult before, like clouds or water, he added.
That was seen in two of the four nearly-finished excerpts screened at Annecy. One unspools in Berk’s communal cafeteria-meet-Viking feast-hall. It’s dinner-time. Hiccup walks through a hall which is choc-a-bloc with Berkians and dragons carousing elbow to wing. Hiccup loves it. But, as a food fight breaks out Craig Ferguson’s avuncular Gobber suggests it just can’t go on.
A second excerpt was an action-scene on the deck of a dragon prison ship, involving a host of assailants, shot angle, cuts and VFX. These were the two hardest scenes to animate that DWA has done so far in the three movies, said Deblois. Their multiple characters would not have been possible without DWA’s new rendering power, he added.
A third sequence captured the courtship of Night Fury and Light Fury, some shots already seen in the film’s trailer.
Deblois left till last a scene where Hiccup constructs a new half-tail for Night Fury, allowing him to go find his new love. “That creates a bit of a dilemma for Hiccup. As much as he is enthusiastic for Toothless to finally find a mate, she clearly doesn’t like humans and won’t interact with him as long as anyone else is around,” Deblois said on stage. “It begins to set up Hiccup’s problem going forward,” he added.
Now able to fly, Night Fury bounds off through the forest to go look for Light Fury. Then he checks and looks back at Hiccup. Both know this could be the beginning of their parting.
“So what is Hiccup without his dragon? We’ll have to wait until 2019 to find out,” Deblois teased, to a warm, extended and standing ovation.