Following the mighty success of Avatar’s 3D rebirth, How to Train Your Dragon flew under the radar and didn’t quite reach the same heights. But nearly a decade since its launch in 2010, these films have more than compensated by offering a tender trilogy with genuine life lessons about friendship, identity and selflessness.

With How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World bringing the animated franchise to a close, it’s so wonderful that it does so in heartwarming and dazzling fashion.

The Hidden World continues the adventures of Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his affectionate alpha dragon Toothless. Hiccup is now the leader of the Viking-occupied Berk following the death of his father (Gerard Butler, who returns in flashbacks), and he’s made it his mission to rescue dragons and resettle them on his small island.

The problem, however, is the island isn’t big enough to accommodate all the dragons, and even if it was, they would still have dragon hunters on their tail trying to slay the notion of dragons and humans living together in harmony. Consequently, Hiccup has to make some tough decisions in order to protect them both.

The first two How to Train Your Dragon films focused on Hiccup discovering his role in the world. He, of course, met his mystical Night Fury dragon. They bonded and became best friends, learning the value of togetherness as they grew up in the process. Now that they have grown up, they are beginning to recognize that their goals have changed. Taking a page out of Toy Story 3 and (most recently) Ralph Breaks the Internet, this chapter is about learning to let go and accept change — a notion that is so important to learn as we all grow up. The fact that a film aimed largely at children approaches this with such grace is truly astonishing.

The Hidden World is a perfect example of why we go to the movies. You’ve heard it all before: to be entertained and learn something about the world — or yourself. We all have our individual criteria for cinema, but The Hidden World hits them all, managing to be funny, affecting and a feast for the senses. There are so many times throughout the film that’ll cause you to revisit your childlike romantic sensibilities and wonder.

As many times as we have seen films touch on this subject, I was amazed at how The Hidden World did so without any force.

There are times when there is no dialogue and the film is quiet and reflective in the same vein as Pixar’s Wall-E. It allows its images to speak volumes and get inside the headspace of the dragons for a change. The jokes and gags, especially from fraternal twins Ruffnut (a perfectly cast Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple, who took over for T.J. Miller following Miller’s problems off-screen), give the film its spark, but it’s these still moments that give it its fire.

It’s no surprise the visuals for these movies are getting better and better. We’ve come a long way since the original film, so to witness the way the virtual camera follows the characters as they fight to protect what’s theirs, it’s as if you’re watching a $200 million blockbuster work its magic. There’s actual depth and there are so many vibrant colors that it’s easier to get swept up into its fantasy.

This is at its peak when we return to Berk after the film’s opening rescue mission or when we enter the titular “Hidden [Dragon] World” itself.

And what kind of movie would this be without an antagonist? This time we have dragon hunter Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), who looks like a mix between Hades from the 1997 animated Hercules and Claude Frollo from 1996’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

It’s apparent the filmmakers have put their ear to ground to recognize audiences are demanding more from their villains. While Grimmel is scary, he articulates his agenda well and has more to him than just being a mustache-twirling bad guy. For one, he’s quite smart and he challenges Hiccup and his friends in fascinating ways.

I knew I was going to be pleased with the outcome of The Hidden World because all the films have been so touching and exciting, but I didn’t anticipate that it would be strong enough to soar with the animation dragons at Pixar.

It’s a much more cohesive narrative than before, complete with stunning visuals, impressive scope and explosive relatability.

Compared to most trilogy-cappers, here we have a goodbye that’s going to take some time to heal from. So bittersweet.

PRESTON BARTA is a member of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association. Read his work on Follow him on Twitter at @PrestonBarta.

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