Photos – David Wyatt
Global Creatures, the Melbourne company behind the world-wide smash live action hit, Walking With Dinosaurs, have teamed up with US animation giants, DreamWorks, to create a visual and technical work of mind boggling proportions. Based on the DreamWorks movie, How To Train Your Dragon – Arena Spectacular, combines cutting edge animatronics, puppetry and live action with large scale video projection, and turns the dial on visual spectacle up to 11.
Global Creatures are emerging as a major franchise that could genuinely challenge the likes of Cirque du Soleil on scale and spectacle. Their earlier work, Walking With Dinosaurs has already played to 6 million people world-wide and is about to embark on a tour of Asia. For their next trick they are tackling the classic King Kong and have plans to produce a stage version of Baz Luhrmann's Strictly Ballroom.
How To Train Your Dragon, their latest production, includes 24 puppet and animatronic dragons (including, Red Death, reputedly the largest animatronic creature ever built), a mix of live actors, circus and aerial performers, a production team that includes a number of key creatives from the Sydney Olympics Opening Ceremony, a score by John Powell (nominated for an Academy Award for his work on the film version of Dragon) and cinema projection on a massive scale. With that kind of creative fire power, you could be forgiven for thinking How To Train Your Dragon is a dead set certainty to be a hit – and no doubt it will be. And yet even with all that assembled talent, the producers can hardly be accused of playing it safe. This is truly cutting edge stuff, and with a work of this scale and complexity, there are any number of things that can go wrong. More than one preview performance (including the original Opening Night) were interrupted or cancelled due to technical issues. But on the rescheduled Opening Night, which I attended, the show went off without a hitch.
The story is based on the novel by Cressida Cowell and casts the dragons in their traditional role of the bad guys, attacking and generally menacing a small but proud village of Vikings. In turn, over time the Vikings have developed a strategy to defend themselves, including regular dragon slaying training for the villagers. Hiccup (Rarmian Newton on Opening Night), son of Viking chief Stoick (Robert Morgan) is keen to prove himself as a successful dragon slayer, but it soon becomes apparent that he has neither the skill nor the temperament to slay a dragon. No-one, especially his father, believes he is up to the task.
After a particularly fierce battle, the Chief decides the village cannot continue living under the constant threat of dragon attacks and vows to end the feud – once and for all. Hiccup, sidelined during the fight, wanders off on his own, and somehow manages to take down a "Night Fury" – the rarest and most intelligent of all dragons. But faced with the prospect of actually slaying the dragon, he chooses to help it, rather than kill it. He nurtures Toothless back to health, and in so doing gains an insight into dragon behaviour, and develops a powerful friendship that will in time save his life – and his village.
I haven't seen the film of How To Train Your Dragon, nor have I read the novel, but the storyline has clearly been stripped back for this production with just the bare bones of the plot remaining – indeed so much so, that both my companion and I were a little confused by the ending. The human characters tend to pale into insignificance compared to the dragons, which are after all, the star attraction. Minor human characters are generally very minor with little allowance for character development, leaving the storyline feeling a bit thin, which is a bit of a shame.
And perhaps therein lies my only real criticism of the production. The technical requirements of the show leave little room for spontaneity and genuine connection to the characters – at times, the actual story telling is rather perfunctory and plays second fiddle to the technology. While the focus is absolutely on the dragons – extremely impressive as they are – the human element of the show seems a little forgotten.
But the true hero of this show is the technology – and the technology is simply amazing. The dragons are brought to life on stage through the use of various puppetry techniques – some of the smaller dragons make use of more traditional puppetry, while the largest animatronic dragons require 3 operators each. The dragons themselves are truly impressive beasts, and we watch in awe as they leap around the stage, breathe smoke and fire, and most impressively – with the help of video projection spanning the floor and one entire wall of the Arena – fly through the air. The attention to detail in Sonny Tilders' creature design is astonishing, and indeed it is in those details – a puff of smoke, a wag of the tail, the blinking of an eye – that the creatures truly come to life.
For those who saw Walking With Dinosaurs, How To Train Your Dragon takes the technology to a new level, and is a major step up from that already impressive base.
RZO Dragon Productions, Global Creatures and DreamWorks Theatricals present
How To Train Your Dragon – Arena Spectacular
Director Nigel Jamieson
Venue: Hisense Arena
Dates: March 2 – 11, 2012
Venue: Acer Arena
Dates: March 15 – 25, 2012
Venue: Brisbane Entertainment Centre
Dates: March 28 – April 1, 2012
Tickets: $49.90 to $99.90
Bookings: Ticketek.com.au or 132 849