How to Train your Dragon: Arena Spectacular

a review by Nalini Haynes

You might recall the movie How To Train Your Dragon, a Dreamworks movie worthy of Pixar (there’s a backhanded compliment if ever I uttered one!) Since our children grew up and especially since our teenage son decided dark movies and TV were the way to go, hubby and I haven’t watched that many kids’ movies. We decided that, rather than miss out, we’d make an effort to watch some of the better ones that come out, of which Dragon was definitely one. Hubby loved Dragon so much he found it on BluRay and brought it home; we’ve watched it a few times since.

Six months ago I heard noises about a stage production of How To Train Your Dragon, where the dragons were constructed by the Walking with Dinosaurs people. My mind boggled and I knew that, if I saw no other stage production this year, Dragon was going to be the one. Tickets went on sale in mid-August, hubby bought the tickets in September. He went in to the ticket sales office and looked at the seating arrangements for every performance to secure the best seats available. The tiered seats were arranged in a U shape embracing a stage the size of a football field. Our seats were in the second row from the front left corner of the U, almost the perfect seats. Further to the right would have been slightly better but the view was incredible.

The basic storyline for Dragon is a geeky accident-prone boy called Hiccup lives in a village of sports jocks (also known as Vikings) who prize strength, courage and the ability to kill dragons. Trying to win his father’s approval, Hiccup develops a mechanical slingshot to bring down a dragon. Hiccup’s success was spoilt when no-one believed him, so he set out to find the dragon. Empathy for the injured dragon provided the seed of friendship while the villager hunters, becoming desperate after a huge number of dragon raids, set out to destroy the dragons’ nest.

I’ll try not to spoil the story for you, which means not saying much about the climax of the performance *bites tongue* but even the opening scenes setting up the characters were breath-taking.

The play’s the thing…

While we waited for the opening number, dragons were projected in flight on the ceiling.

Opening scene: the enormous wall behind the stage – the size of nine movie screens – and the floor of the stage were used for projections, becoming a malleable aspect of the setting. Fire! Vikings suspended by wires fighting an unseen enemy from positions on the wall and on the floor. Gouts and plumes of flame released onstage, warming my face as if I was facing the burning buildings, gave the feeling of being inside the movie. Hiccup tries to help defend the village, only to be reprimanded by his dad and sent home.

One portion of the opening sequence referenced early hand-held computer games. Hiccup was suspended by wires, hanging about half way down the wall. He is running, trying to get to safety, the action provided by projected images on the back wall. At first the images provided a bird’s-eye view of Hiccup who runs at a 90 degree angle to the wall while the paths along which he races fly by ‘underneath’ him. As some computer games showed their characters foreshortened in some scenes, Hiccup also, periodically, runs so the view is not quite top-down but at a slight, foreshortened, angle. The projected visuals meld with this view perfectly while Hiccup races for safety. He passes all sorts of obstacles while shifting angles, blending perfectly with the angle of projection, including dodging falling branches, leaping over subsiding cliff edges to struggle home.

Meeting Toothless, the injured dragon, was a memorable experience. I expected a good rendition of a dragon but I struggle to find superlatives to adequately convey my delight at the excellence of the physical manifestation of a cartoon character. Toothless’ movements, his cat-like quizzical tilting of his head, his aggressive posturing, his intimidated retreats – captivating!

Hiccup goes into dragon training and researches dragons while his father and most of the village men search overseas for the dragon nest. More dragons are revealed in these sequences. Enormous ‘life-size’ dragons emerge to fight the village boys in a ‘controlled’ teaching situation. Some of the class are clowns but not in a white-face sado-masochistic way, in an exuberant display of comedic physical comedy. Mid-air somersaults, playing off on each other, acrobatic performances show that this class includes the range of personalities of any schoolroom. And the dragons! Larger than the people, these dragons wiggle and wobble, wag their tails, flap their wings, blow smoke and fire and fart. And they blink. The colour and texture of their skin, incredibly detailed and varied across different species of dragon, created unique characters, so much more than props.

Even the research scene was beautiful, with sketches projected onto the wall as a shadow play at the back of the stage. As this scene developed, Hiccup lay on the floor surrounded by the projected pieces of paper he had collected and drawn himself. When Olaf opened the door, the wind swept the papers into a whirling school of fish dancing on wall and floor until the door closed, the wind departed and the images settled.

Flying dragons were amazing, swooping and soaring almost directly above us at one point in their circle. Excellent use was made of projections on floor and ceiling; for example, the sea below and the cliffs on either side or, in a whimsical scene, the sea below a full moon into which Toothless, Hiccup and Astrid were flying.
Props combined with projections to create illusions of Viking ships: oars, oarsmen over whom loomed a sail, surrounded by projected boat and waves. In another scene a fleet of Viking ships were portrayed in miniature, each carried by a Viking, cresting the solid aqua sea of light projected from the back wall. Shadows created by the boats and their porters served as artistic contrast, emphasising the beauty of the scene.

A wide, flat dais on the stage floor was mechanised, moving while actors stood upon it, never interrupting their dialogue. This dais served as storage for props and extruded an additional surface at a sharp angle to serve as a periodic contrasting setting.

Sound was ideal; the bass rumbles felt through my feet grounded me in the story while the volume was pitched so dialogue was audible and sound track was never painfully loud.

The performance built effectively to the climactic conflict between father and son, villagers and dragons. Gouts of flame, a monstrously huge dragon monarch was creatively displayed with head and tail poking out of the wall, projections extending the body and creating a moving background.

The close was heart-warming and comedic, featuring more of the dragons. I can never get enough of those dragons.

How To Train Your Dragon: Arena Spectacular was, without doubt, the best live performance I have ever seen. The essentials of the storyline were captured and conveyed brilliantly in a performance that will win the hearts of the next, SFX and CGI, generation, converting them to appreciation of live performance. A Masterpiece. 5 stars. Can I give it 6 out of 5? *shifty eyes*

How To Train Your Dragon: Arena Spectacular is embarking on a 5 year world tour, so when it’s near you make sure you don’t miss it!

Note: my enthusiasm is my own, DMF has not received any incentives or rewards for publishing this review.