How To Train Your Dragon was a surprise, a CGI-animated action adventure story with humor and real heart coming from Dreamworks Animation, whose output tends towards the juvenile (Madagascar) or the base and vulgar (the Shrek series). In the world of HTTYD, lead character Hiccup plays a viking out of step with his time and culture – while all the men of his village, Berk, are huge slabs of meat with face covering beards, he is spindly, thin and weak. The village is locked in a constant life and death struggle with dragon raids, which Hiccup tends to make worse while trying to help with “inventions” – and he soon finds that his inability to kill a dragon leads him to discover that they are more complex and interesting creatures than anyone knew. He becomes friends with a dragon he’s inadvertently wounded, named Toothless. By the end of the movie (I would warn about spoilers, but the entire existence of this TV series must serve as a general spoiler for the movie), vikings have made their peace with the dragons, and have even accepted them into their community.
Dragons: Riders of Berk is a TV series that continues the story, depicting daily life in Berk after the massive change in the village’s culture. Smartly, the themes of cultural and intergenerational conflict stay front and center throughout the series’ 20 episodes. With the major physical conflict – man vs. dragon – eliminated at the end of the film, Dragons is mostly about what it’s like to live next door to enormous flying reptiles that can breathe fire, frighten all the livestock, and eat constantly. While Hiccup and his fellow Dragon riders, including sometime love interest Astrid and local bully Snotlout, are dragon partisans, most of the rest of the village barely tolerate their new neighbors. Local old crank Mildew (a fun performance by Stephen Root) positively despises the beasts, and tries to convince the rest of the village (sometimes successfully) that life was better when they were killing the things.
Dragons is one of the most visually appealing computer-animated shows on TV. Computer animation on television has a tendency to be undefined and “swimmy” – character movements lack anticipation, so they seem to float and bob weightlessly. Dragons doesn’t exhibit these tell-tale signs of cheapness. The scenes of dragons flying and fighting even approach a level of cinematic thrill that’s rare for any television animation. The character and dragon designs are apparently unchanged from the movie, where they were uniformly excellent. Hiccup’s own dragon, Toothless, is a prime example of the creativity of the franchise’s visual design. He has some mannerisms borrowed from house cats, bat-like wings, and a rough, reptile hide that somehow all comes together to make a physically plausible animal and a visually expressive character. The other characters’ dragons also all have non-reptile animal bases, which keeps them interesting: you’re never looking at a bunch of scaly lizards flapping around.
A majority of the movie cast has also come along to the TV-series (a benefit of casting actors for their voices, rather than their above the title star appeal) and those who haven’t are ably replaced by talented voice actors. Jay Baruchel voices Hiccup in a performance that feels initially off-putting- nasal, a little wimpy and modern-feeling in the Viking setting, but it turns out, again and again, to be the right note for the character. Even with his civilization-shifting triumph of harnessing the powers of dragons, Hiccup is still out of step with his world and not confident of his father’s affection. His father, the aptly-named Stoick, is voiced by veteran voice actor Nolan North, who ably steps in for a not-at-all missed Gerard Butler. The rest of the cast plays their parts ably, though the characters themselves are broad, and only tend to move above stock motivations in episodes “featuring” their characters (though I was constantly amused by twin dragon riders Ruffnut and Tuffnut’s unwavering commitment to mindless violence, even if they’re the only available targets.)
The stories the series tells do not hold too many surprises. This isn’t a knock – it’s an action/adventure show for children, where the main character has a voiceover at the beginning and the end, introducing the theme and reiterating it. There’s violence and conflict, but no deep consequences, and only a light sense of continuity. As an adult viewer with more than a quarter century of watching, reading, and listening to stories, I’m not looking for a kids show to do something terribly new – I’m only looking for it to tell the stories it does well. On that score, Dragons is very satisfying. What it does best is mine the world it already has for its stories. While the episodes aren’t mind-bendingly original (there are at least two where a regular character gets jealous of all the attention that’s given to a newcomer who isn’t what they seem) they are never generic – the dragons are never just stand-ins for regular pets while the Vikings are stand-ins for any other cartoon community. The Vikings have specific Viking things to do and specific Viking ways of doing them. An amusing visual joke, more than half of the named adult characters in the show are missing limbs, and have hooks or hammers in place for the hands they lost doing VIking things.
Through it all, the show smartly keeps the heart of the series where it was in the movie – in the trust, friendship, and love shared by Hiccup and Toothless. In the episode “What Flies Beneath” (Wikipedia informs me was originally titled “No Country for Old Dragons”, which is 1000x times better) Toothless faces an old rival dragon, and wants to fight him alone. The injury Hiccup gave Toothless in the movie means that he can’t fly without a rider, but he refuses to allow Hiccup on him for this fight – which leads to a climax where Hiccup takes a literal leap of faith, in a genuinely emotional, heart-stopping moment. It’s times like these (and they happen a few times in the series) where it matches the deeper emotional appeal of the movie.
Dragons: Riders of Berk probably exists for smart marketing purposes (keep the brand in the public eye so that when the sequel comes out it has a potentially enlarged following – fans of the show and fans of the movie). But it’s executed with the same class and intelligence that elevated the movie. It is, in the best sense, a continuation of the world. If you don’t care about How To Train Your Dragon, nothing in the series will change your mind. If the movie has a place in your heart, though, Dragons: Riders of Berk is more of the welcome same.
Notes on the Discs: The complete 20-episode season of Dragons: Riders of Berk is available on two collections of two DVDs each. The extras on the discs include the Dragon Track feature, which is a short profile of the new dragons encountered in the episodes on the disc, and short featurettes on the design of some of the major new dragons introduced in the series. The series looks great, which makes it unfortunate that there isn’t, apparently, a Blu-ray release. Some of the darker scenes suffer from some compression artifacts.