12 March 2012

Review: How To Train Your Dragon

How To Train Your  Dragon: The Arena Spectacular
Global Creatures and Dreamworks
8 March 2012
Hisense Arena

It's impossible to not love a life-sized, fire-breathing, doe-eyed dragon. Surely I could have a small one as a pet?

How To Train Your  Dragon: The Arena Spectacular is based on the Dreamworks 2010 film. Created in Melbourne by the same team who made Walking With Dinosaurs: The Arena Spectacular, its home town is first to see the new spectacle that will spend the next years travelling the world.

If you haven't seen the super-gorgeous computer-animated Dreamworks film, Hiccup the Viking doesn't live up to his dragon-slayer dad's expectations and wants to impress the village by slaughtering a scaly critter, but when he captures his first dragon, he can't bring himself to make the kill and begins to realise that his new friend Toothless and all dragons aren't as monstrous as they believed. When he wins the right to kill a dragon at a festival (and impress his rival slayer and love interest Amber), he's faced with choosing between his smoking new friends or his family and village.

Unlike Dinosaurs, humans clearly cohabit with dragons and the giants are joined by a large cast whose circus skills and flying impress even the most jaded tweens. And who prove that old-school puppetry is as wonderful as any animatronic as an extraordinarily beautiful shadow puppets nearly outshines the giants and some of the most loved critters were hand puppets.

But the stars remain the dragons.  Created by Sonny Tilders and his Creature Technology Company team, the animatronic and puppet creatures are nothing less than sensational, with details like hand-painted skins and blinking and moving eyes that instantly make you ignore any visible technology, and movement so fluid that it's easy to forget that they can't follow you home.

What takes this show beyond a circus ring of spectacular creatures, is the incredible animation by Dan Porta and production design by Peter England. The animation is not like the film, with a hand-drawn and darker feel to it. Projected onto a wall bigger than any screen, the animation creates movement that feels like a whizz-bang computer game rather than a film and works to make the huge audience feel more a part of the action.

Feeling close to the characters and having any subtlety of story is a tough call in spaces made for sport and with such how-do-they-do-that co-stars.  Director Nigel Jamieson is no stranger to massive events, having directed several Commonwealth and Olympic ceremonies, and he uses technology to tell remarkably intimate stories on our main stages (Honour Bound). The How To Train Your Dragon film is a story about Hiccup and his family, the Arena Spectacular, almost by definition, needs to be a story about Toothless and the dragons. Much of the emotion of the story still relies on knowing the film, but it works without that back up and I suspect that changes will continue to be made, so when they saddle up the dragons to leave Melbourne, there won't be any moments when the technology is more interesting than the story.

 How To Train Your Dragon: The Arena Spectacular is as spectacular as it claims to be. If you know little fans of the film, it's worth it. My favourite moment was watching a bank of children waving as Toothless flew to them.  But be warned that the merchandise is ridiculously cute, so be prepared for sulking if you're not willing to buy $30+ toys.