When cinephiles look back over the past decade of animation, the “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise might be a high point for the medium. The emergence of LAIKA and GKIDS, as well as the continued domination of Disney/Pixar will be discussed, but the Dreamworks “Dragon” films stand out. The first likely would have won Animated Feature in most years. However, in 2010, it ran into the buzzsaw that was “Toy Story 3.” “How to Train Your Dragon 2″ won the Globe and Annie for Best Animated Feature but ultimately lost to “Big Hero 6” on Oscar night. The franchise continues to have strong defenders, but the question remains: why did it never take home Oscar?
The release of “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” sparks the conversation about the strength of the franchise anew. Critics seem to be on board once again. It’s still early, but the latest in the saga has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 69 on Metacritic (at the time of writing). While the scores are a slight tick down from the first in the franchise, for an animated sequel these scores are excellent. The Metacritic score could be worrisome, but the appeal for the franchise remains. The question now facing Dreamworks will be whether or not they can finally break through to win Oscar gold.
Historically, the case for “Hidden World” does not bode well. The Oscars rarely reward sequels in Animated Feature. The lone exception to the rule was “Toy Story 3,” but in that case, it was the first time the franchise was eligible for the Animated prize. Additionally, it scored a Best Picture nomination (one of only three animated movies to accomplish the feat). An original song win and nominations for Adapted Screenplay and Sound Editing were also in play. It is too early to say that “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” will compete for Best Picture, but most of those other categories are open for “The Hidden World.”
Luckily, with appreciation growing for the art of animation, these movies have begun to expand outside of animated feature category. Original Score and Original Song are the most common place for these nominations to occur. Yet others have found room beyond these three categories. If “How to Train Your Dragon” can find a way to expand its nomination count, that could give the franchise a huge boost, and potentially find a way to a win.
John Powell earned a nomination for Best Original Score for his soaring work the first time dragons took to the sky. Powell has not been able to pick up another yet, but the end of the trilogy will present unique emotional beats. If Powell can recapture the magic of the first film, perhaps he can find his way back to the Oscars.
For animated movies, expanding outside of the category adds strength to the campaign. This year, the animated race looks strong. To even get into the race, it might require some creative campaigning in other categories. Two categories where “How to Train Your Dragon” should contend are sound mixing and editing.
It remains baffling that the legendary Randy Thom has not received recognition for his work in the franchise. Thom leads a deep sound mixing team. He personally has fifteen nominations in his career, including two wins. He last won for “The Incredibles” in 2005. Even weirder, Thom has scored sound edit and sound mix nominations for animated films on three separate occasions. While “The Incredibles” won, he also picked up double nominations for “Ratatouille” and “The Polar Express.”
Gary Rizzo, one of Christopher Nolan‘s sound designers, rejoins the franchise after skipping “How to Train Your Dragon 2” in 2014. He also carries two sound mixing wins. Finally, Shawn Murphy rounds out the mixing team. Murphy won an Oscar for his work on “Jurassic Park” and received three nominations over his career. The trio owns a combined five Oscars, more than twenty nominations, and considerable industry support. It would be baffling if Dreamworks does not push hard for these contenders this year.
We’ve also seen an uptick in appreciation for visual effects in animated films. Just last year, both “Isle of Dogs” and “Incredibles 2” made the shortlist. “How to Train Your Dragon” appears to show a strong inclination for animated visual effects. As Pixar producer Denise Ream explained to Vulture in 2015, animated films often embellish elements like “water, steam, fire, rain” with traditional special effects. Creating volume in clouds also requires special effects for animated movies. In many ways, “How to Train Your Dragon” should be the perfect test case for the special effects branch. These elements remain essential to the narrative, and perhaps “How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World” could become the first CG animated movie to score a nomination in the visual effects category.
As “How to Train Your Dragon” concludes this chapter of the saga, it remains the crown jewel of Dreamworks. While the franchise has not yet found success with Oscar, it remains popular around the world. To capitalize on the unrewarded franchise, Dreamworks, now owned by Universal, needs to pull out all the stops. Overseas, “The Hidden World” has already earned more than $175 million. With the domestic tracking putting the film around a $48 million opening weekend, it could become a big February hit. That would go a long way toward pushing it into the Oscar race outside of a lone Animated Feature nomination.