Monday, August 13, 2012

My thoughts on "Dragons: Riders of Berk"

How to Train Your Dragon is one of my all time favorite films.  And it's no secret that it is one of my favorites for two primary reasons.  First:  Toothless is awesome.  If you put Toothless on the screen it will make anything cooler.  At least 20% cooler.  Second:  the movie had exceptionally good music, courtesy of John Powell.

And, it would seem, that I'm not the only one who enjoyed How to Train Your Dragon, as it's getting the full franchise treatment that Dreamworks has thrust upon all of their hits in recent years.  Short films, sequels, online games, vaguely Christmas-themed half hour specials, live arena spectaculars, and the obligatory television series.  Normally I'm skeptical about milking a franchise for all it's worth.  That could probably be a subject for a whole article in and of itself.  But How to Train Your Dragon created a world rich with potential for expansion.  So when Dreamworks announced its plans to throw the Dragons franchise into the milking machine, I was actually pretty excited.  The fact that Gift of the Night Fury managed to be a legitimately well made follow-up to the film instead of just a cheap cash-in holiday special made the future seem even brighter for the franchise.

And now we have Cartoon Network's new series called Dragons: Riders of Berk.  Recently the network aired two preview episodes of the new show set to premier this fall.   In the first episode, How to Start a Dragon Academy, Hiccup and co are faced with the task of figuring out how dragons and vikings can coexist before the curmudgeonly viking Mildew convinces Hiccup's father to cage the dragons and send them away.  The second episode, Viking for Hire, shows the struggles of Gobber, who is suddenly faced with a bit of an identity crisis now that his career as a dragon slayer and weapons blacksmith is over.

By and large, I was quite impressed by both episodes.  Both episodes dealt with an issue that the end of the film and Gift of the Night Fury both sort of glossed over:  the challenge of having a clan of vikings and a clan of dragons coexisting peacefully on a tiny little island.  It's a subject rich with potential for future stories so I'm glad to see the series exploring that direction instead of just having the dragons and the vikings being all best-buddies now right away.  Though it does kind of make one wonder why they didn't call the series How to Train Your Dragon: The Series or something similar because it looks like it is, in fact, going to deal with training dragons.  Oh well.

Either way, the first two episodes demonstrate that the creators of the show have some solid ideas for where to go with the series from here.  The writing, tone, and humor are all very much in line with the film.  Gobber seems a little dumber than he was in the movie and Stoic seems to be a bit more stoic than usual, but for the most part everyone is in character.  The cast is a fairly even mix between original cast members and sound alikes, but everybody sounds pretty good overall, even though most of the Scottish accents sound pretty fake.  The handful of new characters all fit right in with the established ones.  Mildew, the antagonistic curmudgeon of the island, is particularly enjoyable to watch.

Visually, the show looks quite good.  Being on a TV budget, there was no way it would look as good as the film, but it comes about as close as I think one could reasonably expect.  The visual detail has all been toned down a bit.  Hiccup's furry vest has been changed to look to be made out of leather now, for example.  And Stoic's beard took a pretty big hit, which is unfortunate.  But the overall look of the show is still surprisingly rich and very close to the level of detail seen in the film, which is quite impressive for television animation.  The animation is fairly decent, too.  The dragons' movement does tend to look a little robotic at times but it's clear that a lot of effort was put into making the dragons look good, especially Toothless.  Everyone's favorite Night Fury isn't on screen too much in the two episodes shown, but he's just as lovable as he was in the film when he does appear.

One last detail I was very pleased to see, or hear rather, is that the series utilizes the same character themes and musical motifs as the original film score.  A bit of research reveals that the show's music is being handled by composer John Paesano.  Paesano seems to have a solid grasp on the style of music that John Powell first established.  He weaves familiar themes in and out of the score without just copying the original source material.  Needless to say, I'm thrilled that the television series will have music that lives up to the great score crafted for the movie.

Based on the two episodes shown, it looks like Dragons: Riders of Berk is off to a great start.  Both episodes consisted of good Saturday morning cartoon fun, even if they were a bit on the predicable side.  The world of Dragons lends itself well to this sort of format, so I'm glad the potential is not being wasted!  Everything I enjoyed about the original film is present and accounted for and the new ideas and characters work very well with the established world.  I look forward to seeing future episodes when the season begins later this year!

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