Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Thoughts on "How to Train Your Dragon" Ancillary Media

I haven't given my love of the film How to Train Your Dragon its due yet. The film is just great—it has a sharp character arc, focusing simply and cleanly on a protagonist that actually earns his lovable companion, and who also has to learn to value his own skills instead of wanting to be someone he is not. It's the most earnest and heartfelt thing I've seen from Dreamworks, and I love it to pieces.

A couple of weeks ago, I drove out to Saskatoon to see Dreamworks How to Train Your Dragon: The Live Experience, the touring stage show that adapts the animated film, using animatronic dragons and much of the same people who produced the Walking with Dinosaurs live show.

It was totally amazing. The dragons weren't perfect illusions, with the ground-based animatronics walking around with mobile platforms attached to their underbellies, but after a while you stopped caring, for these creatures came alive. They tossed their heads, their eyes glowed in the dark, and they padded along like real animals. The dragons in flight were great, travelling on an oval track above the arena. The Red Death, the kaiju-sized dragon enemy, could only be represented as a head and tail with 3D projection taking the place of the rest of the body, but the animatronic parts were just a squat, warty, beautifully hideous design. In fact, all the dragon designs were great translations from cartoony to realistic, both suiting their mediums.

I love Toothless as much as the next girly nerd, and he was the best choice for a lead dragon to capture the audience's heart, but my favourite dragon design is actually the Deadly Nadder, the blue, spiked wyvern-type. Fortunately, there was a lot of Nadder action in this show, and even a plush one to buy from the souvenir stand.

The rest of the special effects were great. They used projected images to create sets that weren't there, 3D imagery swirling around the stage to become the ground and sky. The dragons only "breathed" smoke and flashes of fire, but the on-stage pyrotechnics were flaring through the action scenes, and I could feel their heat washing over my face.

The story of the stage play pretty much followed that of the movie. It was presented with more exposition, was a little bit more comedic, and the emotions were a bit broader, to communicate the story from the stage. The result was not quite as poignant as the film, but it still worked. And they kept the ending where Hiccup loses his leg, so it wasn't actually censored.

Before I left to go to the show, I caught the Canadian premiere of Riders of Berk, the TV sequel to the movie. I've watched some clips before, and my impressions were always the same—the series is annoying in many ways, but I can't stop watching because the dragons are so damn cute.

The series is a little more cartoony, a little lighter in tone, and heavier on the anachronisms than the film was, but the main problem is that, with a few exceptions, Hiccup is the one who knows best, the one who solves whatever problem the episode is about, and everybody else looks like an idiot.

I also realize Hiccup is supposed to be more cerebral than his peers, and a protagonist is the one that will do something special that only they can do, and that is why the story is about them, but it can be taken too far. Hiccup's role in the film was fine, but if you have a TV series, with a broader storyline, lower stakes, and the potential to tell a story from multiple viewpoints, then it becomes annoying when a protagonist is still the only one to solve everyone's problems.

To add to the problem, it also seems like the dumb kids have gotten even dumber, and many of the adult characters also look stupid compared to Hiccup in several scenes. That's no way to make a protagonist look better, if his people are already a step below him. That's why people still discuss Gary Stus, y'know.

Some episodes of the series are off in other ways, too. A particularly bad one was "Portrait of Hiccup as a Buff Man", a plot which depended on Hiccup's father approving an overmuscled portrait of his scrawny son, and them Hiccup feeling he needed to prove himself a man by finding an ancient treasure. Essentially, it was about Hiccup and Stoick re-learning the lesson they had already learned in the film: that Hiccup's "unmanly" nature did not mean he was worthless, and that Stoick loved his son despite sometimes being unable to understand him. This was an empty re-hash.

The antagonist of the series is Mildew, a crotchety old Viking man who hates dragons and always tries to cause trouble for the village…for no apparent reason. He's the kind of villain who does things just to be a dick with nothing else to him, and it's so boring. No other character seems to like him, either, and there's no suggesting Mildew ever has any kind of a point. The moral lines are clearly drawn, and the endings are predictable.

But dragons are so cute. They still have mannerisms like real animals, and their wide variety of distinct designs. The other kids, no matter how dumb or jerkass they are, obviously love their dragons—I particularly like the way Fishlegs babies his Gronckle, Meatlug.

(But why is Hookfang male now? In Gift of the Night Fury, that dragon was seen with hatchlings. Maybe it's a retcon because otherwise, the main characters would have three female dragons to two males, and we all know how much children's television hates that. Or maybe Monstrous Nightmares are like seahorses.)

The film was great, and one day I'll write a full review. The stage show is also great, but the TV series not so much. I thought it had the potential to be great, but if they have Hiccup solving everyone's problems, and no effective antagonist, it almost loses me. Except for those adorable dragons, darn it.

(I probably should read the books now, shouldn't I?)

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