At the core of the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy is the fantasy of meeting a dragon who loves you and becoming best friends with it. Unfortunately, locked away in the Viking Era, that wish is but a distant dream to dragon-loving kids.
Except, the How to Train Your Dragon movies actually do take place in our world instead of a Viking Era fantasy realm, an idea that the films and subsequent shows have always flirted with. A new animated show, however, commits to that concept, jumping forward in time 1,300 years and following a group of modern teenagers. The fantasy of flying on dragons and bonding with them for life is more tangible than ever.
From John Tellegen, who worked as a writer on previous How to Train Your Dragon shows, Dragons: The Nine Realms brings the fantasy of dragons to a contemporary setting. The first season of the new show feels more like an introduction than anything else, but the concept bubbles with potential. And ultimately, Dragons: The Nine Realms is exactly what it promises to be: some pure-hearted fun that indulges childlike whimsy.
[Ed. note: This review contains some spoilers for Dragons: The Nine Realms]
The How to Train Your Dragon movies ended with the dragons descending into the Hidden World, a chasm deep within the earth, as Hiccup and Toothless realize that dragons and humans can never peacefully share the world. From there, the show kicks off with Tom (Jeremy Shada), our plucky and restless protagonist, who journeys to a crack in the earth’s crust with his scientist mother. At the research center dedicated to the fissure, Tom meets some of the other kids: dreamy Jun (Ashley Liao), who believes in magic and the occult; animal-lover D’Angelo (Marcus Scribner), an Army brat who just wants to find friends and a home; and shy Alex (Aimee Garcia), a tech wiz who hacks into the station’s computers for fun.
Tom accidentally stumbles into the fissure, where he meets a curious black-and-white dragon — clearly the distant offspring of Toothless and the Lightfury from the last movie — and discovers the world of dragons, tucked away from human eyes for the past thousand years or so. Eventually, all the kids on the station learn about the dragons, each of them finding a different dragon to bond with.
One of the key differences between Nine Realms and the main trilogy (and even the other spinoff shows) is that it feels more like an ensemble show. While the main trilogy boasted a wide cast, the focus was always primarily on the bond between Hiccup and Toothless, with Astrid, Fishlegs, and the other vikings and dragons bolstering that primary narrative. Not so in Nine Realms, where each of the kids gets a moment to shine with their dragons. D’Angelo gets to break out his burgeoning veterinary skills, while Tom brings over the contents of his refrigerator to try and figure out what sort of food Thunder wants to eat (turns out, dragons like frozen fish sticks).
While the variety of characters is impressive, the character design itself is not quite. The animation is on-par with other CG DreamWorks television properties — which is to say, not nearly as polished as the theatrically-released movies. A television show is not going to have the same budget as a film, nor will it look as refined. But the stark difference is jarring to more discerning viewers, especially when DreamWorks’ traditionally animated TV projects, like Kipo and the Wonderbeasts and She-Ra and the Princesses of Power, don’t suffer from the same plummet in quality. While the kids are more-or-less inoffensive in design (albeit a bit generic), some of the adults — particularly Jun’s mom and D’Angelo’s dad — have strange cartoonish proportions coupled with an oddly realistic textured rendering that just looks particularly discordant.
Despite all that, the characters are charming. Most of the six episodes are spent setting the stage, introducing each kid to each dragon and building out the exposition. The show starts off with Tom meeting Thunder and each subsequent episode pulls a new kid into the fold with logical progression through the group. Tom and Jun have known each other since childhood, so she learns about the dragons next, and so on and so on. It’s formulaic, but the meet-cutes are enjoyable — each dragon reflects each kid in a way, and each kid has to look a bit inward before really connecting with their dragons. It gives the cast surprising depth in just a few episodes. There is just something persistently charming about seeing fearsome dragons curl up like cats and dogs when they warm to the right person, and Nine Realms does that meet-cute over and over, each feeling just as warm and fuzzy.
Aside from the dragons themselves, there is little to connect Nine Realms to the original movies and older shows just yet. There are some elements sprinkled here and there, as well as other plot points — like the clash between Tom and his mom’s passion for discovery for discovery’s sake versus the research organization’s desire to make a profit — that feel like building blocks to something bigger. The show never quite builds up to that point, even though it tries to introduce higher stakes in the last episode, after mysterious earthquakes threaten the future of the research station. Nine Realms’ pacing always feels off, given that there are only six episodes to establish everything. Instead of focusing on the discovery and exploration, the last episode formalizes a threat that would work with some more build up. Six half-hour episodes isn’t a lot to consider what the show could be, but given those limitations, Nine Realms manages to craft a promising introduction to something greater.