The first How to Train Your Dragon film won critical and commercial acclaim, not only netting almost $495 million globally but also cementing in the idea that Dreamworks – after years of being considered the lesser, annoying cousin to Pixar’s greatness – could produce a meaningful, beautiful film. Unfortunately, this seemed to have opened the floodgates to a sheer onslaught of entertainment formats – films, sequels, TV shows, deals with Netflix, marketing gimmicks, and online acquisitions that basically ruined Dreamworks creatively and financially. (I get into more detail here.) Consequently, How to Train Your Dragon 2 received a more mixed response, and while it eventually managed to make boffo global revenue, it took way longer then its predecessor, and it seems to be less loved.
And then there’s the How to Train Your Dragon TV series, which you may not even have heard of.
Yes. There have been three seasons of the Dragons animated show: two of them, Dragons: Riders of Berk and Dragons: Defenders of Berk, have aired on sporadically on Cartoon Network, while the third, Dragons: Race to the Edge, is airing on Netflix. What’s baffling is that the show has received high ratings on IMDB and Netflix, despite the sheer lack of conversation about it – even the film’s sequel generated some discussion. The lack of discussion is because the show, quite frankly, isn’t good at all – despite possessing a potentially rich cast, a promising set of story arcs, and arguably the best CG animation on the air today. The squandered potential is made all the more frustrating because of the following reasons:
1. It’s Almost Impossible to Catch Up
So this is a bit misleading, as technically, all the episodes of Dreamworks Dragons are accessible, in that poor, distorted, copyright-avoiding way that most Youtube videos are nowadays. But if you’re looking for the high-quality, official showings that aren’t technically in danger of being removed, you’re going to have to pay $2 per episode (as above). Even Cartoon Network seemed strangely uncomfortable with the show, airing episodes once in a while with minimal fanfare and rarely, if ever, on repeat. It was impossible to catch-up when the show was airing, if you were even aware of it.
Stranger still: while Race to the Edge is airing its first thirteen episodes on Netflix (out of twenty-six), the streaming service never acquired those first two seasons. Which is nuts, especially since there are characters and narrative developments in Race to the Edge that directly come from Riders and Defenders. Again, this isn’t that big of a deal – it’s clear that neither Cartoon Network, Netflix, nor Dreamworks seem to be uninterested in protecting their copyright, essentially allowing the show to thrive in piss-poor quality out there in the web, but relying on potential viewers to look elsewhere or pony up more than a Netflix fee to binge on the first two seasons before starting the third is just batshit crazy, especially since Netflix seems to have all the random Dragons specials that aired intermittently over the years.
2. It Downplays the Hiccup/Toothless Relationship, the Franchise’s Strongest Aspect
While I had some minor issues with the first How to Train Your Dragon, I will readily admit that the film did a masterful job developing what basically amounts to a boy and his dragon warming up and learning to trust each other. Heck, one of the strongest parts of the sequel is the beginning, where Hiccup and Toothless are just messing around with each other on the side of a cliff. That relationship has been the highlight of the franchise, which may go to explain why many people seem were turned off by the sequel, since that relationship was downplayed for a family union (which was effective!) and an underdeveloped villain (which was not).
Yet the TV show barely engaged in that relationship at all. In fact, Hiccup and Toothless seem to be more at odd with each other than functioning in that perfect best friend/son-and-pet poignant space that make them such a winning duo. The end of the first film placed at the same level, emotionally and physically, but that dramatic core is barely evident in the show. Instead, Dreamworks Dragons opts for what amounts to a dragon-nature documentary within a travelogue amid a burgeoning war between hostile foreign Vikings. While ignoring the Hiccup/Toothless bond for more dramatic, stake-raising adventures sounds good on paper…
3. It Inexplicably Emphasizes the Sheer Diversity of Random, New Dragons
… it unfortunately amounts to poorly told, boring, generic plots that actively deflates tension and development. It’s pretty unfortunate, because there are a lot of broad, sound ideas that Dragons comes up with, which amounts to the wider exploration of the lands around Berk while a growing threat of exiled Vikings prepare for war. Yet all of that comes secondary to the narrative emphasis of MORE DRAGONS – the show introduces an assortment of new reptilian flying beasts, presented in a Pokemon-esque, “Gotta Catch ‘Em All” manner. The show clearly wants its audience to accept its numerous dragons, to know and “collect” them, like so many post-Pokemon cartoons from the 2000s.
But with little to no merchandise and nary a repeat to be seen, there’s no way viewers will remember all these new dragons and their strengths and weaknesses. These aren’t exactly distinctly notable dragons either – not a single one exhibits the kind of personality that Toothless possesses, not even the dragons owned by Hiccup’s crew. With the focus on these dragons as the primary thrust of the action, the more potentially rich stories, like the fucking war, are tossed side. When Mark Hamill, the goddamn Joker, voices an completely unmemorable villain, you fucked up. This touches upon the third point:
4. There’s Very Little Development to the Characters or the World of Berk
Because the dragons are the focus, everything else is tossed aside in a half-hearted fashion. Dreamworks: Dragons should be basically Hey Arnold! with Vikings, but the relationships between characters, between family members, are so half-hearted and lazy that it becomes painful to watch. Remember how Astrid, Snotlout, Fishlegs, Tuffnut and Ruffnut were viciously underused in the second film? Like, the extent of their development is Snotlout and Fishlegs fighting over Ruffnut, and it’s all kind of gross? You’d expect the show, with several episodes and three full seasons, to at least bring more characterization to them than that. You’d be wrong. The villains are uncomfortably one-note as well: Alvin (Mark Hamill) is somehow a threat without being threatening, and Dagur is basically Alvin but kind of crazy, but not like, crazy.
The series then tries to bring more to exploring the world outside of the island of Berk, which isn’t a bad idea at all… except for a few things. 1) The animation is definitely strong for an animated TV show but it isn’t really diverse: all islands and various places look exactly the same. 2) These places are primarily noted for the new, unique dragons that are discovered, but over time they migrate or move around so they can’t even be tied to any place. 3) The hostile Vikings they meet all live in generic caves, so even the villains don’t get any iconic dwellings to live in. In “Race to the Edge,” Hiccup and his crew find a device that displays new locations under various flames from different dragons. Hiccup claims that this discovery “changes everything” but I defy you to tell me what, exactly, changed in the entire run of those thirteen episodes.