Dragons in the ACC: A Review of Dreamworks’ ‘How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular’

[all images by Gesilayefa Azorbo]

On August 8, with a burst of roaring flames sending heat all the way into the audience at the Air Canada Centre, Dreamworks introduced Toronto to the dragons of Viking lore . . . or at least the imaginations of Dreamworks writers.

Based on the 2010 animated film of the same name, How To Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular is a fully immersive theatre experience that brings the stories – and the beasts that populate them – to life. Set in the town of Berk, a Viking village in the third century, Dragon tells the tale of Hiccup (played by Riley Milner), a misfit youth whose father is Stoick the Vast, chief of the village, whose predator problem is less like wolves and other wildlife, and more like dragons.

Hiccup is determined to prove himself to his disapproving dragonslayer father and his perennial crush, the tough-as-nails Astrid (Gemma Nguyen), so he creates a crossbow-like device to attempt to capture a dragon. But when he inadvertently captures a mysterious Night Fury dragon, he can’t bring himself to kill it, and an unlikely friendship is formed between himself and the dragon he names Toothless.

For anyone who has seen the film, the top question is likely to be, how does one bring 14-foot dragons onto a stage? Well, let’s just say there’s a good reason they’re using the Air Canada Centre to stage this travelling production.

The stage proper is the centre of the stadium – more used to hockey pucks and basketball shoes than claws and scales – and all along one side of the arena, a constructed wall serves as both a giant projection screen and the backstage area of the transformed arena.

With a mix of pyrotechnics and video projections creating the world of rolling hills, steep cliffs, and vast expanses of ocean, Dragon creates an immersive experience for the audience. There is an extended sequence, very similar to a giant video game, where our live action hero is suspended from a harness and runs across hills, climbs cliffs, jumps from trees and completely manages to up-end all sense of perspective for the audience – because he’s doing this all by running, crouching, and lying against the projection wall in sync with the swooping, rotating visuals being projected against it.

The projections aren’t limited to the wall, either. The entire arena is transformed from flaming village to cloud-dotted skies to the undulating liquid appearance of an underwater scene, all through the use of projections, lighting, and surrounding ambient sound.

And then there are the dragons. From the very first appearance of the leathery, winged, flame-burping creatures, which elicited a smattering of spontaneous applause, it becomes apparent that if you couldn’t see the tension cables and mechanical conveyors, you’d be hard-pressed to explain to your six-year-old that dragons truly don’t exist. From the cries of “Wow!” “Uh-oh!” and “Cool!!” peppering the air throughout the show, the multitude of kids in attendance may have been questioning that themselves.

The animatronic creatures are what make the show truly spectacular. Based on the creatures from the original source film, these dragons are accurate down to the last wrinkle, reptilian eye-roll, stretched wing, or tail-twitch. The show has been called the most technologically advanced theatre tour yet, and when you add a total of 23 larger-than-life, incredibly realistic, fire-breathing flying dragons that swoop overhead in truly spectacular ways, it’s hard to disagree.

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