September 14, 2018 at 10:00 AM EDT

The book of How to Train Your Dragon is about to close, definitively, as the creators of DreamWorks’ popular animation franchise are beginning to unveil their road to the end.

With the March 2019 release of How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World, the studio will say goodbye to its flagship fantasy trilogy, which director Dean DeBlois has helmed and penned since the first film in 2010. Based on Cressida Cowell’s series of children’s books, the franchise follows the adventures of a young Viking pacifist named Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) as he overturns the tenuous relationship between humans and dragons, ignited by the unexpected bond he forges with his own dragon conquest-turned-companion, Toothless.

Dreamworks Animation

The billion-dollar franchise’s first installment scored two Oscar nominations, hauled in $494 million worldwide, and spawned a host of popular Netflix television and merchandise spin-offs. The Oscar-nominated sequel, released in 2014, added another $600 million to the franchise’s theatrical pull and won the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature. But arguably the series’ greatest achievement has been its casual bucking of children’s fantasy tropes over its installments. Building up a veritable dangerous Viking world loaded with as much primeval mythos as a George R.R. Martin novella, HTTYD diverges from some of its animated competitors by exploring vast increases of time between entries, creating a sentimental city with a lush accumulated history and characters with an emotional fullness that only comes from showing stories across a generation.

Which is why DeBlois and veteran animation producer Brad Lewis say fans should prepare for emotions to run high in the series’ impending finale (especially if, like it does to certain EW movie writers, John Powell’s score alone still unleashes waterworks). 

DreamWorks Animation

“We thought about it for a long time and came up with what we think is a bittersweet way to say goodbye to these characters, but the right way,” says DeBlois, who also co-wrote and directed Lilo & Stitch with former HTTYD collaborator Chris Sanders. Hidden World not only marks the end of Hiccup’s trilogy but, to DeBlois’ knowledge, also the end of its television spin-offs. The writer-director likens the finale to the way Cowell signed off her book series when she ended it in 2015: “You will understand why Hiccup says, as you heard in the trailer, ‘There were dragons when I was a boy.’ And by the end of this film, you’ll have answered the question of what could have happened to them.”

It’s sure to be among the dozens of questions fans will have, as details are beginning to emerge about what’s at stake for Hiccup, Toothless, Astrid (America Ferrera), and the village of Berk in How to Train Your Dragon 3. The filmmakers will close out the Toronto International Film Festival with special teases — of the plot, of the new technology that will push the film into uncharted territory, and of the emotional gut-punch that awaits fans at the journey’s end. But while Toronto will enjoy its gifts live, EW can exclusively reveal more details right now about what’s ahead in Hidden World.

First: Despite his tragic end in the second film, Gerard Butler’s Stoick the Vast will return. This movie plays with time more than its predecessors, utilizing flash-forwards as well as flashbacks, and in doing so, brings Stoick back to help guide Hiccup in his chiefly responsibility as protector of Berk. One early but pivotal scene finds Hiccup recalling his (unfathomably adorable) toddler self first hearing Stoick’s tale about a secret home of dragons hidden behind a great waterfall somewhere at the edge of the world. Stoick’s dream was to seal it off and stop the fighting between humans and dragons. Hiccup, however, sees the utopia as a potential new home where the people (and pets) of Berk can safely relocate; he’s proudly, if inadvertently, turned Berk into a bustling Viking metropolis of human-dragon cooperation, but with each dragon Hiccup rescues from trappers, he increases the target on Berk’s back to a less tolerant outside world. (Enter: Grimmel, a terrifying new villain, voiced by F. Murray Abraham, “who is the voice of intolerance and answers the question why Toothless is the last of his kind,” says DeBlois. Also, he kind of looks like Ted Danson, but that’s neither here nor there.)

DreamWorks Animation

Even if son still does not follow father, Stoick’s inclusion “offers a warm hug to the character one last time,” says DeBlois, adding that the final goodbye echoes one of the key messages repeated throughout the film. “The overall theme of the story is letting go, or finding the wisdom to let go, rather,” he says. It applies to the non-human characters, too. “So much of Hiccup’s identity, as a leader and an adult, is because of his relationship with Toothless. But if Toothless is not there, who is Hiccup?”

Hiccup WITHOUT Toothless? It’s possible, if only because the second major storyline in the movie — teased to the internet in the June trailer — presents Toothless with an intriguing new companion: an alluring female dragon known as Light Fury. She first meets Toothless on the outskirts of Berk, and later pays him a visit while demonstrating her unique ability to heat her scales into a mirrorlike, essentially invisible surface.

DreamWorks Animation

The filmmakers designed Toothless and Light Fury’s courtship ballet as one of several key dialogue-free scenes in the film. Their moonlit reptilian pas de deux (affectionally dubbed “First Date”) serves as a spiritual successor to the first film’s “Forbidden Friendship” sequence; it may even remind crowds of the indelible music-driven moments of films past like Dumbo and Lady and the Tramp. The courtship has inherent comedy in Toothless’ attempts to impress Light Fury, but Lewis promises a greater reason for the romance. “What we’re seeing in this story is Toothless learning to trust his own instincts,” says Lewis, who produces alongside Bonnie Arnold. “It’s not just a B-story. This is a potential agent of change that forces Hiccup to consider what sort of leader he wants to be, or even can be, without Toothless.”

Finally, TIFF audiences will be among the first to take in the splendor that is the Hidden World — a mythical dragon den that, spoiler alert, doesn’t stay hidden for long (c’mon, it’s in the title). DeBlois and Lewis can’t help but beam when they show off the bioluminescent marvel, inspired by a vivid dream DeBlois had but rooted in some semblance of the science of ancient undersea caves. And as far as expansive terrestrial caverns go, the first film’s Red Death nest and the second’s Alpha ice abode don’t hold a phosphorescent candle to the hidden world.

DreamWorks Animation

You can get a taste of the cosmically incandescent set piece in the film’s trailer, but witnessed on the big screen, the grand scope of the hidden world suggests something of a fitting culmination for the studio. The franchise’s final fantastical reveal, in a series  bursting with them, marks the technological pinnacle of the How to Train Your Dragon team’s achievements over the course of a decade. And by no small accident, what could be DreamWorks’ height of artistic imagination also sets the scene for the emotional last act of a boy and his dragon whose journey was every bit as exquisite.

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