DreamWorks Animation finally has a truly great animated series. While they have previously produced the Penguins of Madagascar and Kung Fu Panda series, those efforts felt somewhat flat and remained largely confined to only undiscriminating younger audiences. With Dragons: Riders of Berk, they have crafted a lushly animated, creatively written series that is fantastic entertainment for the entire family. They also carried over principal voice actors from the original film, most significantly star Jay Baruchel returning to voice Hiccup, America Ferrera as Astrid, and Christopher Mintz-Plasse (aka McLovin’) as Fishlegs. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that they were concurrently working on the upcoming feature film sequel, but nonetheless it’s great to have original cast members involved in the TV series.
As in the original novel series and film, the action takes place largely on the Viking island of Berk, a windswept hunk of inhospitable rock populated by rugged human characters and dragons. In the aftermath of the first film, the previously warring humans and dragons have reached peace and are mostly living in harmony, with Hiccup and his closest friends each enjoying their growing relationships with their individual dragons. As the series opens, the dragons are still causing some occasional friction with the humans solely due to their natural behaviors, leading Hiccup and crew to set up a dragon training academy to further tame the wild beasts.
In the second episode, the writers deal with the impact of the newfound peace on the weapon-crafting career of ancillary character Gobber. With no more need for dragon-killing tools, he’s left without purpose in life and drifts between odd jobs until Hiccup and friends find a rewarding new career path for him. Next up, the gang has to figure out how to get Berk’s livestock to accept the ferocious dragons, as they have stopped producing eggs, milk, and such out of fear of their terrifying new neighbors. This episode is especially above-par in regards to near-theatrical quality animation, with vast snow-covered vistas, great flying scenes, and character/critter animation.
In the disc’s final episode, the gang discover a small injured dragon in the wild and bring it back to Berk to nurse it back to health. Everyone seems to love the new arrival except Hiccup’s dragon Toothless, who knows that the interloper is only a baby Typhoomerang dragon with a very large, very destructive mother on the search for his return.
While it’s great to have the core human and dragon characters back for the series, it’s also fun to meet new dragon species such as the Typhoomerang. The range of varied stories present in this first collection as well as continuing throughout the season also shows the care the production team is putting into releasing a show viewers can actually look forward to watching. The series is regularly airing on Cartoon Network in primetime at 8PM on Wednesdays, further enforcing the position that this is intended to be more than just a kids show. Whether you enjoyed the original film or not, the series greatly expands the Berk universe and is an entirely worthy project on its own merits.
The DVD includes five exclusive cards that can be used with a DreamWorks AR (augmented reality) app to come alive on your iOS or Android smart phone. Frankly, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it animation isn’t really worth the effort of finding and downloading the app, but it’s sure to be a thrill anyway for the youngsters. Elsewhere, the bonus features include a sneak peek at the How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular currently making its way around the world from the folks who brought us Walking with Dinosaurs, along with a preview of Madly Madagascar, an upcoming Valentine's Day TV special.
DreamWorks Dragons: Riders of Berk is available on DVD on Tuesday, November 20th.