How to Train Your Dragon series architect Dean DeBlois has an undeniable passion for bringing dreamlike flights and astonishing tales to the big screen. He is equally focused on allowing the wondrous worlds he dreams up to serve as a backdrop for intimate stories that speak to the most human of conditions—finding the strength to follow your convictions, trusting love when it comes along…and grappling with when it’s time to let go.
When DeBlois considered the engine of change for How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, a new chapter of Toothless and Hiccup’s evolution, he began to wonder what coming-of-age would look like for the Night Fury…as the dragon grows to yearn for a life beyond humans. “For so long, he has been Hiccup’s constant companion,” says the director. “But he has begun to stray from that bond as he is drawn by the call of the wild—and by instinct and maturity.” To stay true to the narrative, the storytellers had to contemplate the unthinkable. “We asked ourselves if we could have their relationship completely fall apart, but still bring them back together, stronger than ever,” DeBlois says.
What began as an unlikely friendship between an adolescent Viking and a fearsome Night Fury dragon has become an epic adventure spanning their lives, written and directed by Dean Deblois, based on the timeless books of Cressida Cowell, DeBlois
Cressida Cowell is an English children’s author, known for the novel series “How to Train Your Dragon,” which has subsequently become an award-winning franchise as adapted for the screen by DreamWorks Animation. As of the last books release in 2015, the series sold more than seven million copies around the world.
Canadian-born Dean Deblois (Written and Directed by/Executive Producer) is equally at home in the worlds of live-action and animation filmmaking. Although already an accomplished animator and writer at the time the film became a worldwide hit, he became well known for writing and directing Walt Disney Animation Studios’ Lilo & Stitch with Chris Sanders.
DeBlois later stepped behind the live-action camera to direct the indie critical darling Heima, which documents alternative/post-rock band Sigur Rós’ series of free, unannounced concerts performed in their home country of Iceland. He also previously served as head of story on the Disney hit Mulan.
DeBlois once again collaborated with Sanders to write and direct his first film for DreamWorks Animation, How to Train Your Dragon. In addition, DeBlois is set to write, produce and direct the live-action comedy The Banshee and Fin Magee. He also has several live-action projects in development at Universal Pictures and The Walt Disney Studios, on which he is serving as writer, director and producer.
The writer/director of How to Train Your Dragon 2 and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World began his career at Hinton Animation Studios and worked as animator on the television series The Raccoons. He next joined Don Bluth’s Sullivan Bluth Studios in Ireland and worked on the animated features Thumbelina and A Troll in Central Park.
For DeBlois’ imaginations of Hiccup, Astrid, Toothless—who live in one of the cinematic universe’s most famous Viking villages—their journey on the big screen has mirrored key moments in his own life and of those to whom he is close. The writer/director’s keen sense of adventure, wide-eyed imagination and unique ability to explore simultaneously deep joy and heartbreaking loss has given his avatars a life beyond the screen. They’ve become an enchanting part of our own world, regularly drawing in new fans who revel in the franchise’s emotional and psychological depth.
Since audiences last met the people of Berk, the villagers have seen their sleepy hamlet become awash in messy, astonishing dragons. This new normal—no matter how beautiful, noisy and delightful—has become unsustainable. “A perennial underdog, Hiccup is now the rookie chief of his tribe,” DeBlois says. “He’s partnered with Toothless, who is the rookie alpha of the largest flock of dragons on Earth. Together, they’ve been instructed by Hiccup’s mother, Valka, in the arts of dragon rescue…while Hiccup has fashioned armor made out of Toothless’ scales. They spend their time attacking trappers’ barges, freeing dragons and whisking them back to their overcrowded island.”
Now that Hiccup, the most unlikely of Nordic chieftains, has defeated the villainous Drago and laid his father to rest, he wonders if he has achieved his boyhood dream of the perfect dragon-human existence. Quickly, however, this utopia is proving to be untenable…for two-legged and two-winged creatures alike. The bucolic isle is running out of room, and with the vast number of dragons underfoot and overhead, the formerly quiet village is beyond madness.
But a far more dangerous threat looms on the horizon. The increasing visibility of dragons in their world has exposed the magical creatures to those with a much darker agenda. Freedom, it seems, has come at a cost. “As a young leader, Hiccup’s taken on the burden of figuring out where dragons must go,” DeBlois says. “Still, his hidden fear is that he’s ultimately unworthy without the creature who saved and defines him. He’s missing the fact that Astrid, who is very worthy and capable, not only sees that in him…but wants to be his partner and relied upon. She is attempting to shed light onto Hiccup’s problem of letting go, and feels that he shouldn’t stop the natural course of Toothless finding his own destiny.”
While the filmmaker created the last chapter to serve as Hiccup’s coming-of-age story, from tenacious runt of the litter to growingly wise chieftain, DeBlois knew that the key to The Hidden World was in exploring how the Viking’s relationship with Toothless would bend the arc of their shared destiny. We find a Hiccup grappling with putting first the needs of his dearest companion, even though the he knows he must eventually let his best friend go.
Producer Brad Lewis, known for his work on beloved films such as Ratatouille, reflects on the appeal of joining this massive creative undertaking. “It is such a thrill to make an adventure that is equal parts sincere and epic—one that helps an audience feel such a gamut of emotion,” Lewis says. “We’re so lucky that the first two Dragons have been so embraced…and I’m thrilled to now be a part of such an unexpected new chapter in this series. This film is not only welcoming to Dragon newcomers, it’s also deeply satisfying to diehard fans.”
Lewis underscores that he has long experienced and championed animation as a medium, not simply a genre, and he found a kindred spirit in DeBlois. “The Hidden World offered this opportunity of a love story that’s equal parts epic adventure and deep emotion,” he says. “Dean’s given us a fascinating universe, one with the dragon’s Hidden World at the story’s core. It’s a mystery and an answer. It teases the audience and ignites imaginations.”
Producer Bonnie Arnold, who has been with the franchise since it was developed in 2006, reflects that our heroes are on parallel paths. “The coming of age of Toothless heralds the Reign of Hiccup,” she says. “Hiccup is the forward thinker of the Vikings who has long wanted peace for his people. That said, everything he imagined as a boy has changed. He has begun to understand that his dragon is a wild animal, and that Toothless’ instincts are guiding him where he must go. Toothless is the leader of his dragons in the same way that Hiccup is leader of his Vikings.”
To Arnold, DreamWorks Animation movies’ embrace of the unique is what makes them so distinctive. The producer of the landmark Toy Story and Tarzan believes that the best films are simply stories well told. “As complex as the Dragon movies are visually, that’s a nice complement to what simple, brilliant stories they are,” she says. “This is the best version of the universal story of a boy and his dog, and this chapter embodies an unbelievable friendship told through Hiccup’s eyes. Many people identify with his brave, coming-of-age journey.”
Everyone at DreamWorks Feature Animation Group shares DeBlois’ passion for memorable storytelling that refuses to play it safe. The magic of DreamWorks films begins and ends with the artists and innovative technologists at the Glendale, California, campus—who blend creative excellence with technological innovation, transporting audiences to worlds beyond imagination. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World perfectly embodies this artful melding of storytelling and technology, resulting in one of the most epic films ever made by DreamWorks Animation.
DeBlois appreciates that his creative team shared his vision, and that DreamWorks’ technologists were able to create state-of the-art tools that brought The Hidden World to stunning visual life. “DreamWorks Animation has this great ambition to venture out of safe territory of animated stories,” the director says. “The studio wants us to test our limits on tech capabilities and audience reach. DreamWorks isn’t afraid of speaking to a more mature audience, and I love the youthful excitement and deep enthusiasm for innovative storytelling that permeates the studio—as well as the new technology tools that allow us to innovate.”
As the trilogy based on the world she created comes to an end, no one has deeper feelings about saying goodbye to this chapter of Toothless and Hiccup than their creator. “It sounds very unlikely, but it’s based on my own childhood,” reflects Cowell, “and the Isle of Berk is a real place where I grew up as a child. Stoick the Vast is based on my relationship with my father. Of course, the ending, ‘There were dragons when I was a boy,’ are the opening words of the books that I wrote 20 years ago when I just had a child. I tell the story from the point of view of the boy growing up, looking back to my own childhood, and Hiccup is a father to Toothless. The themes are so enmeshed with my own life that it’s incredibly bittersweet.”
Series architect DeBlois has spread his love of Cowell’s world to anyone he meets. For the writer/director, the most gratifying part of his time with How to Train Your Dragon has been introducing newcomers to this intricate universe, as well as encounters with fans who share how the movies and shows have served as a lifeline. “These characters and storylines are an escape I never anticipated for people,” he concludes. “It’s been an ongoing theme in my interactions that our heroes—especially Hiccup and his square-peg-in-a-round-hole existence—give comfort to people in a world that can reject them. I realize that we have a responsibility to keep them in mind with every decision we make.”