How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World released in the United States at the end of February 2019, so it’s probable that if you were going to see it, you have and spoiler warnings are not necessary. However, if you’re like me and find yourself having to wait until the DVD is released for most movies, proceed with caution… there be spoilers ahead!
“What did you think of the movie?” I asked, somewhat awkwardly, as I bent down to hug my crying child.
“Bad. It was really bad.” A few sniffles and a shudder accentuated the words.
The tears started again as we moved into the theater hallway and found a small alcove out of the way. We stood there, my husband and I, with our sobbing children as other theatergoers shuffled past. I rubbed their backs, wiped a few stray tears from my own eyes, and murmured words of encouragement and understanding.
Friendships will change and move and end. Paths will verge and then curve away. Our lives will be intertwined with many amazing people and there will be partings that will be painful in ways we weren’t expecting.But to be honest, there wasn’t much I could say. This wasn’t a “There will be more, don’t worry” moment. And it wasn’t a “We can see the next one when it comes out” type of movie. This was the end of an era, the end of a franchise, the end of something that had fueled hundreds of hours of stories and play and childhood adventure in our home. This was How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, and it was an honest to goodness goodbye.
Goodbyes are really, really hard. They are painful and scary, and most of us avoid them at all costs. As a result, they aren’t common in the stories around us. To be clear, I’m not talking about death, though that is a huge goodbye in its own right. We absolutely witness mourning and death, both on the big and small screens quite a bit. No, I’m talking about saying goodbye in other areas of life: when friends or family move away, when jobs suddenly end, or when life slowly shifts and things are not what they once were. I’m talking about those times in life when we have to say goodbye to things or people we love, not because they have died, but simply because it’s time.
Even being raised in the church doesn’t help; in fact, for people like myself, it can make facing goodbyes even harder. “Goodbye is not the end” and “we’ll see each other again!” might be true, in a sense, theologically, but sayings like that can also make it harder to face the emotions associated with goodbyes in the here and now. At least they did for me. I’ve spent way too many years avoiding the pain of loss behind the hope of eternity, and while there may be a place for that, it’s not what we see in the Bible. Jesus himself spent a significant time preparing his disciples to experience the sorrow his goodbye would bring. He didn’t teach them to avoid the pain; rather, he taught them how to walk through it. He knew better than anyone that goodbyes are painful, but he didn’t shy away from that pain as I so often do. He moved through it. He remembered, he wept, he even raged, but he didn’t hide. And neither should we. But the truth is, we do. A lot.
We live in a time of reboots and remakes; nostalgia reigns, and we rarely have to be done with a story or character we love. There are open-ended fade-to-blacks. There are dream sequences and time travel rescues. There are sequels and more seasons and Netflix specials. There are a million and one ways TV shows, games, and movies save us from saying goodbye, but life is not as simple, or as kind, as all that. Life is filled with endings, and the truth is, we need to know how to face those well.
Goodbyes don’t come naturally to any of us, which is why movies like The Hidden World are so important, so heartbreaking, and so good. They show us what it looks like to face endings with grace and hope; to say goodbye when we’d rather stay but when leaving is the right thing to do. They show us loss tempered with happiness and teach us how to walk through the hurt to say goodbye well.
The first movie in the series, How to Train Your Dragon, came out in 2010. It was the story of a Viking boy who didn’t fit in and the dragon who became his best friend. Hiccup is the scrawny, Viking teen, and Toothless is the last of his kind. Together, they formed an unlikely friendship and worked to convince their entire society that dragons not the loathsome, horrible creatures they were believed to be.
In each movie that came and throughout the intervening TV show, we saw and experienced Hiccup and Toothless’ friendship deepen. They saved each other’s lives multiple times. They rescued their village, faced loss and tragedy, and discovered new lands. And they grew up. We watched Hiccup and Astrid fall in love; they have their first kiss as teens, fall in love as young adults, and eventually became the leaders of their village. But as Hiccup grew up and found love, Toothless did not. Oh he grew up, to be sure. We saw him mature from the happy puppy-dragon he was in the first movie to the loyal, wise adult dragon of the last. Sort of. But through all of that is the fact that Toothless is the last of his kind.
When producers released the first teaser trailer of Hidden World, audiences went crazy for the beautiful Light Fury, a dragon that looked exactly like Toothless only with white scales to his black. We realized from those first moments of film, as we watch him bounce around trying to woo the female dragon, that Toothless had finally found love too. But what we didn’t know was what that would mean for his friendship with Hiccup.
The plot of Hidden World was fairly simple; the feared Grimmel the Grisly is on the hunt for Toothless, and by all accounts, they cannot stand against him. He has caught every other Night Fury and will stop at nothing to have Toothless too. Together, Hiccup and Toothless (with their friends) must stop Grimmel and save everyone and everything they love. It’s a story of hope and friendship. On a deeper level, however, it is a story about goodbyes.
Hidden World is laced with the theme of avoiding goodbyes. It’s the idea that runs throughout every plot and subplot, framing the conflict and nagging at our thoughts as we watch things unfold. And that’s fitting, I suppose, considering that we knew going into it that this was the last movie. Producers were very vocal about the fact that this was the end of the How To Train Your Dragon series; there would be no more shows and no more films. As audience members we knew that this was goodbye. But what many of us were not expecting was the writers to take their job so seriously and not just slap “The End” on the screen, or tack an epilogue on after the credits. Instead, the writers and producers of Hidden World used this as an opportunity to teach us how to say goodbye, to lean into the pain and walk us through it.
We expected a happy ending, an ending free of painful goodbyes, but part way through the film, the first goodbye came; the people of Berk are forced to leave their land and their homes. Grimmel’s reach is too far, and in a desperate attempt to keep the dragons safe and Toothless close, Hiccup convinces them that their best defense in a new home. In a very real way, the first goodbye that the writers brought us was a mild one. It was a testing the waters sort of goodbye in which they allowed us to see both an end to something but also the hope that that ending could bring. But it was still painful and unexpected. They left the home that they had rebuilt and defended and rebuilt again for generations. This first goodbye set the tone for the story that the writers were telling, reminding that this was a story about endings.
Throughout the rest of the movie we face many more goodbyes. We say goodbye to Gimmel (which was easy to do; he was horrible), goodbye to Stoic the Brave (through Hiccup’s memories), we even momentarily say goodbye to Hiccup when we think he’s going to sacrifice himself to save Toothless. But the hardest goodbye, of course, comes in the last moments of the movie when Hiccup becomes aware of two important things: this world is not safe for dragons and the Hidden World is. Hiccup realizes that keeping his friend close is not the same thing as keeping him safe.
Grimmel the Grisly may be gone, but there will always be another hunter trying to take their dragons. Hiccup finds that his fear of losing his friend is actually keeping him in danger instead. And while he doesn’t want to say goodbye, the time has come when it’s the right thing to do. So Hiccup says the hardest goodbye of all and gently encourages his friend to go with the dragon he loves and live in safety, to take his place as alpha among the dragons of the Hidden World. It was a simple, tearful goodbye. It was a painful awareness of the situation, and heartfelt remembrance of all they had been through, and a hope-filled promise that, just as they had survived countless adventures together in the past, they would survive this parting as well.
Tears rolled down my cheeks as I watched Toothless lead the dragons away. It was not just the end of a franchise; it was the end of a friendship that has been a part of my life for years. I didn’t want to say goodbye. I wanted to live with the hope, even the slim hope, that there might be a sequel. I wanted to let my imagination create stories where Toothless came back or where the humans moved to the Hidden World. But even in that the writers did not lessen their determination to teach us how to say goodbye, for once again they leaned into the pain and walked with us through it.
In the final scenes of the film we watch Hiccup and Astrid marry, see the town rebuilt on the new island, and see Hiccup and Toothless reunite ten years later. Ten years. It’s a happy moment where Hiccup and Toothless’s children finally meet and begin a friendship of their own. But while it was a sweet meeting, it did not ease the pain. Not really. By adding that scene the writers reinforced the fact that ten years went by without the friends seeing each other. Ten years of hurting, or waiting, or wondering. Ten years of learning to move on, learning to be happy again, learning to let go. It was a sweet scene but rather than lessen the goodbye, it reinforced the magnitude of what was lost and what was gained. It was hard to watch, it was painful, but it was necessary to show us how to be okay with the hurt and how to say goodbye.
Goodbyes are hard and unnatural. We go to great lengths to avoid them both in our daily lives and in the stories we enjoy. But the reality is, in this world we live in, they are a real and present thing. Friendships will change and move and end. Paths will verge and then curve away. Our lives will be intertwined with many amazing people and there will be partings that will be painful in ways we weren’t expecting. And like Washington singing to Hamilton, “If we get this right, we’re gonna teach them how to say goodbye,” the writers of Hidden World made the hard decision to walk us through the pain and say goodbye with us. They showed us goodbyes in all their gritty pain and walked us through them, giving us glimpses of the hope but not shying away from the finality ether. And while it was hard to watch, it was also good. It brought tears, but it also taught us a little bit about the importance of allowing ourselves to face goodbyes well.