How to Train Your Animatronic Dragon

As a rule, I don’t go to a lot of live events, or shows, or whatever you want to call them; things that generally take place in an arena or stadium and the tickets for which cost somewhere upwards of expensive. I’ve been to a few concerts in my time, but they aren’t a thing that really matters to me. I love live music, but going to concerts is low on the priority list. Even lower on my radar are any other kind of live shows, be it Cirque du Soleil or a play or anything else of the sort. While a live experience is always neat, not many of those things are really within the realm of my interests.

With this in mind, I was reasonably wary when my parents offered me the opportunity to go the the How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular, Stage shows have never been my thing, and I’d never even seen the How to Train Your Dragon movie, so the odds were more or less stacked against me as I went in.

After the fact though, I feel like the me in this timeline needs to build a dimensional portal so that I can travel into other timelines in which Alternate Ryans did not go see the How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular, and punch them in the biscuits. If that doesn’t make sense to you, of if you’d prefer a tldr version: I loved the show. For anyone interested in all the other deets, read on.

Let’s set the stage first, shall we? As stated, I was a How to Train Your Dragon virgin going into the live show. From good word-of-mouth, I did have interest in the Dreamworks movie, but had never gotten around to actually watching it. That in part had a little to do with my relationship with Dreamworks: for the rare brilliant movie (Kung Fu Panda) that comes out of the studio, we get a handful of lame-ass Shrek and/or Madagascar sequels. I suppose they’re also somewhat responsible for the terrible Meet the Parents series, but I’m focusing more along the lines of Dreamworks Animation than the output of the entire studio.

How to Train Your Dragon does have a leg up on the other movies though, as it’s (very) loosely based on a series of children’s books. I’ve never read any of them, but if I were ten years old I’d be friggin’ stoked to read through them. I think it’s a plus for the movie because the story and characters are already there, and that leaves much less room for the writers to add in unwanted “wackiness” that permeates the bulk of their lesser feature films.

Not having done any research beforehand, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect in an capacity. My brother is a big fan of the movie, and he assured me that it’d be good. I went in with a positive attitude, and right from the beginning I was pleasantly rewarded for keeping my mind open.

The basic plot of the show follows Hiccup, the scrawny-ass viking. Being scrawny-ass in a viking village that is consistently under dragon attack, Hiccup is not the most well-liked guy around (this is to say nothing of the fact that all the other kids are just as scrawny). Of course, the model viking and leader of the clan, Stoick the Vast, is Hiccup’s father. This right here, this is a huge proponent of why I like HTTYD so much: I am a complete sucker for “son who wants to earn his father’s love” stories. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and Paranorman, for example, are good movies on their own (the latter is fantastic), and they also revolve around sons who just want their fathers to love them, and that angle hits me right in the soft spot every time. I could watch a thousand sappy love/tragedy movies and not shed a tear, but that “I’ve always been proud of you, son” moment makes me bawl like a baby every time (on the inside, because boys don’t cry).

The opening scene of the HTTYD show introduces the handful of dragon types that feature by flying miniature versions of them around the arena. Unfortunately, the dim lighting and relatively small models made it hard to get a good look at them, and the only thing I really took away from the scene was that the fat dragon propels itself with farts. In a strange twist, this particular wacky aspect was not in the movie, though it does seem to be in line with the sense of humour in the book series.

The next scene is what really sold me: the dragon attack. The stage is fairly complex: They chopped the arena in half, and stuck a round podium-type dealie in the active half. The separator has a multitude of doors of varying heights and sizes on it, and has many backdrops projected on it throughout the show, utilizing the doors in many ways. What the dragon raid scene does though, is project a top-down view of the village on the wall, and has Hiccup on a wire flailing about as if he’s running though the village while the background moves around behind him. I’ve described it pretty poorly, but it’s a really unique effect, and I think it was very effective.

After a little plot-styled hemming and hawing about how Hiccup is a walking disaster, Stoick leads a crew of vikings on an expedition to hunt down the dragons’ nest and put an end to the raids once and for all. While he is away, the village’s armorer and combat instructor, Gobber, starts training all the young’uns in the way of dragon fighting. Meanwhile, Hiccup is convinced that he shot down a dragon during the last raid and ventures into the forest to find it.

This is the point in the live show where they cut a lot of detail to make sure they could cram all the important story bits in. When Hiccup does find the dragon he felled in the forest, you’re treated to a quick quip about how its tail was broken in the crash landing and it cannot fly, and then somehow Hiccup has the mechanical knowledge to build an artificial tail wing that he can activate via a stirrup while riding on the dragon, who is very abruptly referred to as Toothless after the first few scenes in which he appears. This is all explained pretty handily in the movie, where Hiccup is the blacksmith apprentice to Gobber. How he’s able to rig up the device he uses to control Toothless’ flight in a viking village where the most sophisticated technology is door hinges, I’ll never know. But whatever, we can hand-wave that when we consider that Hiccup is smarter than all the other vikings by several orders of magnitude. At the very least, there’s a montage in the movie that shows Hiccup going through several failed prototypes. There’s also a scene in the movie that explains why Hiccup gives the dragon the name Toothless, and even though it’s a throwaway moment, at least there’s a little logic there. In the live show it comes across as a little insulting without explanation, as “toothless” is a common colloquialism for something harmless.

I don’t remember exactly the order in which things go down in the live show, but the key notes are these: Hiccup befriends Toothless. Hiccup uses knowledge from havnig Toothless as a friend to subdue dragons in combat training. Stoick returns home, defeated, but is proud of Hiccup for being able to “fight” dragons. Hiccup does not want to kill a dragon in a traditional viking ceremony, and this is when things start to tumble out of control. In the live show, however, this is the point where the story begins to take a backseat to the real reason you bought tickets: gigantic freakin’ dragon robots.

Okay, so “animatronics” is a more fitting descriptor than “robots,” but the words used don’t matter: the dragons are so cool. They are huge, they are super-detailed, and they have a ton of personality. The gymnastic maneuvers the actors are doing while “fighting” the dragons are neat, but you’ll be distracted the whole time as your attention is locked firmly onto the huge dragons billowing smoke and stomping around. Admittedly, I was a little disappointed that the dragons only breathe out candy-coloured lasers and smoke. I guess real fire would have been something of a safety hazard for a live show like this, and I’m more than willing to accept that because holy crap the dragons were awesome.

As much as I enjoyed the show, as soon as they started trotting out the dragons, I couldn’t help myself but think “Man, the only thing that could make this better is if it were How to Train Your Rathian.” And I stand by that sentiment to this day. Even if they’re just animatronics, I would give as many organs as I could spare to see live versions of some of the Monster Hunter beasties. But that’s just my own personal fantasy.

Anyway, I won’t bother running down the whole plot, because that should give you just enough incentive to see the movie if you haven’t. What you do need to know is that the live show’s climax is a showdown with a dragon so huge that only it’s head and the end of it’s tail could fit on the stage. It’s a gigantic sucker, and makes for a pretty amazing battle scene. The really neat part is that it’s body and wings are projected on the wall, so that you can get a somewhat better sense of what the big guy looks like. I thought it was a really great way to work around just having a giant dragon head sticking out of a wall.

As far as the quality of the actual show goes, I’d have to rank it somewhere between “pretty dang good” and “friggin’ awesome.” The actors were spot-on with their parts, and they did a really good job of incorporating a bit of acrobatics into the fight scenes. I found it odd that the group of kids would often transition into a somewhat non-sequitur breakdancing circle, but it didn’t detract from the show. There wasn’t a single musical number, and while that may seem like a strike against a show of this nature, it didn’t bother me in the least. I came to see dragons after all, not singing!

In the end, the live show was so good, that I immediately borrowed my brother’s blu-ray copy of the movie so I could see how it goes down in animation. The most important thing you need to know, if you haven’t seen this movie, is that it’s the highest rated Dreamworks Animation film for a reason. It is goddamn spectacular. There have been a lot of animated movies that I’ve thought were great over the last few years, but HTTYD blows them all out of the water. Even Wreck-It Ralph, and I can’t think of another recent animated feature I’ve praised quite as much as Wreck-It Ralph.

There are a few differences between the movie and the live show though. Aside from anything I’ve already mentioned and the condensing of the plot for the live show, the most obvious thing to change is the dragon design. The dragons in the movie are very cartoony and are more like caricatures of dragons. They have skinny necks and big eyes and crazy, impossible tooth configurations. The dragons in the live show look more like the designers took the Walking With Dinosaurs models, repainted them, and added wings and spikes. Of course, don’t let this make you think the designs are of lower quality. The live show’s dragons have just as much character as the ones in the movie; they just have a tendency to have more generic body shapes. It doesn’t detract in any way, but I was a little surprised at just how much the designs differed.

In fact, the only dragon that retains the same look between both versions is Toothless. This is obvious, because he’s the only dragon that gets an actual name; the rest of the dragons are referred to by their species. The other dragon that retains a similar look is the Gronckle (who I’ve nicknamed Stan), and even then it has a pretty significant difference: as I mentioned before, in the live show, his flight and attacks are both powered by farts. In the movie, there isn’t a single mention of dragon farts. I don’t think there are any fart jokes at all, which is very surprising and shows great restraint, especially since we’re dealing with Dreamworks writers. The Nadder is quite a bit thinner and more bird-like in the movie, but retains a similar overall look. The Nightmare has an almost completely different design between the two, and you probably wouldn’t guess they’re the same dragon if you weren’t told. The Zippleback, the two-headed dragon, isn’t in the live show at all. The gigantic dragon, known in some circles as the Red Death, isn’t quite as imposing in the live show as the movie, because you don’t see the whole thing, but really, that might be even more terrifying. Notably, the Red Death only has two eyes in the live show, whereas the movie version has six.

I don’t know if I’ve sold you on the How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. Far as I can tell, the show’s tour is on its last legs as of this writing, and I have no idea whether they’ll come back around or not next season. I may be imagining things, but I think the show has been through my city two years in a row now, so I don’t see why it can’t come back again. Especially considering that Dreamworks loves to milk their franchises for all they’re worth, and it would be a great way to keep HTTYD on people’s minds until the sequel lands in 2014. Moral of the story: if you’re lucky enough to have the opportunity, go see this show. At the very least, you can still check out the website, which has tons of videos and pictures that are of considerably higher quality than the ones I snapped with my phone.

It might be more feasible to hope that I’ve convinced you to check out the HTTYD movie if you haven’t already. It’s been out for some time now, but is stupidly unavailable through Canadian Netflix. Two of the short films (Legend of the Boneknapper Dragon, Book of Dragons) are up in there, but the movie proper is absent. It’s probably for the best though, because HTTYD is a gorgeous movie and should definitely be experienced in HD. So truck yourself on down to Wal-Mart or wherever you like to get your Blu-Rays, and pick up a copy of How to Train Your Dragon. It’ll do wonders for the overall quality of your movie collection.

 

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