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Tuesday, 2 February 2016

Dreamworks' Dragons S3: Race to the Edge, Part 1.

As a quick note, there will actually be another post later today. Not a long one, just a short editorial that I feel compelled, as a very small Youtuber, to make. You can probably guess what it's about, but if you've not heard about this thing then boy golly gosh, you are in for a treat.

Dreamworks' Dragons
Series 3
Race to the Edge, Part 1.

Since this is a successful applicant for most confusing review title, I should like to clarify that this is not a two part review for Dreamworks' Dragons' third series, it is, in fact, that said third series is part one of the Race to the Edge storyline. Part two is series four, which I will also be reviewing, probably next week.

I actually kind of adore How To Train Your Dragon. I'm a fan of Cressida Cowell's books, which are very fun, solidly put together children's stories that I would definitely recommend; and I'm a fan of the Dreamworks franchise, for entirely different reasons, because the Dreamworks franchise and the works that its loosely based off really are entirely different beasts, aimed at different groups of people. Which is why it's so surprising that it took me this long to get around to actually watching this.

Set in the build up to How To Train Your Dragon 2, three and a half years after the first film, Race to the Edge sees Hiccup and the other Riders come into possession of the Dragon Eye, a mysterious codex detailing islands and dragons past the fog bank that surrounds their archipelago. Setting out to explore the region detailed in the Eye, the group set up a forward base and start finding dragons - but Dagur, an old enemy and the leader of the Berserkers, is also beyond the fog bank, building a fleet of anti-dragon ships.

But why was it just lying around on a boat?

So, we'll start with the mechanical stuff. The writing remains pretty strong, even if it dips into the formulaic at times, with the basic plot of each episode being 'dragon-related environmental problem plus character conflict' - that's a fairly protean formula, to be fair, so it's possibly only after marathoning thirteen episodes that it starts to feel old. The soundtrack, mostly composed of music cribbed from earlier series and films, is great. The series is well-animated, mostly - some of the scenery can look suspiciously flat and Playstation 1-oid at times, and you can definitely tell where corners have been cut (not least because it's animated in the same style as the films, in which no corners have been cut at all, giving any viewer a direct point of comparison). There's never really any moment when the animation shines, per se, but it's consistently of a high quality.

The animators did well, also, in ageing Hiccup up while also making him look concretely younger than in the second film, even though they don't seem to have done that for anyone else - every other Dragon Rider looks exactly like they did as children, just scaled up. That's a little vexing, especially on Astrid, who being neither stocky like Snotlout or exaggeratedly narrow of features like the twins, suffers most egregiously from this, with the age shift doing nothing so much as making her look like she has a huge, ungainly head, situated precariously on a tiny body.

No, seriously, it was actually distracting at times. I kept thinking she was going to keel over from the weight of it, it was very upsetting.

This is an odd image, because it has Fishleg's dragon, but no Fishlegs.

In terms of plotting for the series as a whole, we start to fall down a bit, because to be honest, there isn't one. That's partly due to form: The third series is meant to link up with the fourth series to form a single, coherent story, rather than functioning as one on its own. But there's only about five plot relevant episodes at the absolute maximum in the thirteen episode series, and the series ends on a slightly uninspiring episode about, of all people, Snotlout. 

The idea of splitting a story on television in two isn't a new one, so compare and contrast with how other mediums do it: In both US television series with a large hiatus part way through, and split-cour anime, there is the sense that each half must form, to one degree or another, a cohesive whole. There's a build-up, rising tension, culminating in a dramatic moment in the final episode of that half of the story, either concluding a storyline or leaving a cliffhanger. 

Race to the Edge's approach reminds me of nothing so much as the first volume of RWBY, which ground to a sudden halt halfway through a storyline: But RWBY had the excuse that it was the first true outing of a small indie company with limited funds. This is the third series of a wildly popular children's show based on even more wildly popular films and backed by a massive company. Show some respect for storytelling form, you guys. 

All of this probably gives the impression that I didn't enjoy this series, but actually I really did. I enjoyed it enough to mainline it to the exclusion of nearly everything else I watch, and I completely intend to do the same again with the fourth series. 

I've never been fond of the twins, but they are an absolute joy.

The series has a lot of great character interactions and a lot of great comedy, and to be honest, even through its worst moments, those sustain it very well. It's excellently voice acted (congratulations Jay Baruchel on the only role you will ever perform which doesn't make me hate you), snappily written by people with a good eye for dialogue, and does a fine job of making you care about all of the characters. As a character driven ensemble show, it is a good case study in how to do one right. 

(It's also, as a side note, actually really good about its treatment of disability. Hiccup's disability is never treated as something tragic or shameful, and it's also never forgotten about: Characters frequently remark on it, both seriously and jokingly, the prosthetic occasionally is a plot element (such as being used to essentially lever open a cage), and perhaps most importantly, while Hiccup's disability certainly gives him problems, with several scenes showing him struggling to run long distances and with a running, silent visual being him staying on his dragon even when others are getting off of theirs, it's never presented as something that has destroyed his life - it's a problem that he has to overcome with the help of various tools and aids.

That's an enormously positive message for children watching, and a nice change from both the 'I'm disabled but it has made me magical so that's fine' narrative and the 'I'm disabled so my life is now over' narrative.

So many dragons.

Also, we get a canonically bisexual character among the main gang - an actual canonically bisexual character whose bisexuality is shown and alluded to on screen, not a 'oh yeah by the way this character isn't straight' word of god moment. His affections towards men are treated identically to his affections towards women. We also get another character whose bisexuality is implied. This, too, is all good stuff.)

So, in conclusion, I like this series. I like all of the How To Train Your Dragon stuff, book and film, and I imagine I will quite happily continue to like it all. This series, along with the two before and the one after, are all up on Netflix, and I would imagine at least the first two are on various other viewing platforms, so if you enjoy the franchise, do check them out if you haven't already.

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