Dragons: Defenders of Berk Part 1 DVD Review: Another Half Season of Dragon Training

Dragons: Defenders of Berk Part 1 returns to the surprisingly good TV incarnation of How to Train Your Dragon.
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They've changed the title. Dragons, the TV series continuation of the hit CGI movie How to Train Your Dragon was, in its first incarnation, subtitled Riders of BerkĀ (reviewed here on Cinema Sentries). That season was all about the slow road to acceptance of dragons into the Viking community of Berk. Now that the Berkian's enemies from Outcast island (led by Alvin the Treacherous) have gotten the idea that dragons can be used by Vikings, the series' focus, along with its title, shifts to Defenders of Berk.

It's still about training dragons, the former sworn enemies of all Viking-kind. The main characters are the young dragon trainers of Berk - Hiccup, the decidedly non-Vikingish Viking who started the whole dragon training thing; the bullying Snotlout; overweight nerd Fishlegs; aggressively stupid twins Ruffnut and Tuffnut; and the serious-minded warrior-girl, Astrid. They ride on dragons that match their personalities, fly around, have adventures, and fight bad guy Vikings and wild dragons alike.

While there was an overall story arc to the first season, Defenders has more strict continuity: actions by the bad guys in the first episode only come to fruition in the fourth, when a number of planted dragon eggs hatch Whispering Deaths in the caves under Berk. There's a sense of growing conflict with the greater world around Berk, and fewer episodes dedicated strictly to Viking village life. It is also lest strictly Hiccup's story. There's no longer an episode-opening-and-ending narration telling us what the story meant. Only a handful of the 10 episodes included in this two-disc set can be said to really be Hiccup stories.

This new direction does not start out entirely successfully. The first couple of episodes have pretty weak stories and some oddly off-putting directorial choices. A scene where Fishlegs and his dragon Meatlug (Gronkle, Boulder class) feel left out and gorge themselves on berries and rocks respectively is edited and animated so choppily it looks cheap, which is something that was rare in the first season. Humor in the first few episodes largely falls flat, timing (both of dialogue and animation) do not click, and even the focus on continuity is spotty: at one point Mildew, a Berk resident who is supposed to be a prisoner of the Outcasts, is seen helping them with some scheme, and no-on mentions it, at the time or later.

Thankfully, as the season goes on the kinks seem to work themselves out. The five episodes on the second disc go from strength to strength. The writing is stronger, more of the jokes connect - Ruffnut and Tuffnut become positively hilarious in a couple of episodes where they're more prominently featured.

Also much improved through the entire second season is the designs on the new dragons. All of the dragons from the movie (especially Hiccup's Night Fury, Toothless) look fantastic, but many of the newly introduced dragons in the first season seemed a little slapdash. The Thunderdrum (adopted by Hiccup's dad and chief of Berk, Stoick, for his own ride) looks like a squashed frog, and the Typhoomerang is just odd looking. In this season, the new dragons look much scarier, and more plausible. The big bad of a couple of episodes, the Screaming Death, is enormous and fearsome looking. The Flightmare, which appears only during the Aurora Borealis (called "Arvin Dale's Fire" in Berk) looks like a beautiful winged salamander as it shimmers along with the northern lights.

In the last episode on this collection, we're introduced to the lightning breathing Skrill, and a cliffhanger ending that points to the real problem with this release, and it has nothing to do with the series. This two-disc set includes just the first half of the second season. The entire season has already aired (the last episode on March 5th.) It's common practice for studios to split up kid's series into multiple releases, and I guess fans should be happy that there will be any complete release at all - but it's still an annoyance to just get half the series at once, with (to the best of my knowledge) no announced release date for the second half.

But at least this set leaves me anticipating that second release. Dragons has been an uncommonly good adaptation/extension of a movie into a TV series. Whatever problems some of the first few episodes had, it is always a gorgeously produced show. The dragon battles are always exhilarating, and the story is moving in an interesting direction, where the Vikings of Berk are clearly going to face challenges from multiple avenues in the future. It's an exciting, well-made kid's show, and as an arrested adolescent I find it worth my time.

About the Disc:
The only extras on the discs are a continuation of the "Dragon Tracker" series from the first release, where Hiccup describes the new dragons that they've met in the included episodes, a short featurette about the design of the Screaming Death, a music video and some trailers. The video on the disc looks okay, but this is a series screaming out to be in HD, but with no Blu-ray release in sight, this DVD is the only game in town.

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