How to Train Your Dragon Arena Spectacular, RZO Dragons Productions, Global Creatures and Dreamworks Theatricals, Hisense Arena, Until March 11.
Hands up if you hate dragons. No one? Thought as much. Now, through cutting-edge animatronics, the ultimate fantasy creatures monster the stage, taking flight in an arena spectacular from the team behind Walking With Dinosaurs.
While the dinosaurs impressed with their massive scale, that event had almost no narrative. How to Train Your Dragon is even more visually astonishing. Harnessing high-tech puppetry, this show’s wonders are no longer earthbound. And, based as it is on the phenomenally popular 2010 film – grossing second only to the Shrek films in Dreamworks’ animated stable – it has a story worth telling.
Hiccup (Riley Miner) is a brainy Viking lad born into a world of brawn. He comes from a long line of dragon hunters, and certainly can’t compete with the ferocious Astrid (Gemma Nguyen), the toughest dragon slayer in school. When Hiccup finds himself face to face with Toothless the Night Fury, he befriends the dragon rather than killing it.
The show is a triumph of theatrical and cinematic design, pitching us into a world of fire, stone, and steel, of towering cliffs and tranquil forest glades, rolling seas and lava-strewn mountains. Jonsi’s atmospheric Icelandic composition complements the lush landscapes, and the merger of interactive animation and aerial tricks gives the feel of an immersive video game in three dimensions.
The dragons themselves are intricately realised, some majestic, some fearsome, and some impossibly cute – one moment they’re hunting and maiming, the next blowing smoke rings and farting glitter.
In a fillip to Australian performance, locals tag-team with American performers to play the teenage leads. Although the acting is necessarily coarse in an arena environment, the drama ratchets up in the second half, and the physical performance shines throughout, with plenty of clowning, acrobatics (and even a spot of aerial dragon-slaying ballet) in Viking crowd scenes. The show builds and builds to a boggling climax.
How to Train Your Dragon is a big leap forward in making the technology serve theatrical storytelling, rather than substituting for it. There’s still a bit of that, but it’s difficult to complain about thin parts of the narrative thread when your senses are being ravished by pyrotechnic displays and dragons taking to the air.
Sky-high production values don’t provide all the best moments, though. One of my favourite parts of the show was low-tech: a humorous and brilliantly executed excursion into South East Asian shadow puppetry.
Nigel Jamieson marshals an incredible design team to effect. And kids will love it – my 5-year-old nephew’s eyes were popping out of his head. It’s a unique and entrancing spectacle, and a lustrous world premiere Melbourne can be rightly proud of hosting.