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Dragons: Gift of the Night Fury & Book of Dragons: Blu-ray + DVD + Online Video Game Review

DreamWorks Dragons: Gift of the Night Fury & Book of Dragons: Blu-ray + DVD + Online Video Game combo pack cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Dragons: Gift of the Night Fury

Director: Tom Owens / Writers: Adam F. Goldberg (screenplay); Cressida Cowell ("How to Train Your Dragon" book series)

Voice Cast: Jay Baruchel (Hiccup), Gerard Butler (Stoick), Craig Ferguson (Gobber), America Ferrera (Astrid), Jonah Hill (Snotlout), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Fishlegs), T.J. Miller (Tuffnut), Kristen Wiig (Ruffnut)

Book of Dragons

Director: Steve Hickner / Writers: Steve Hickner, Bart Coughlin, Joshua Pruett (screenplay); Cressida Cowell ("How to Train Your Dragon" book series)

Voice Cast: Jay Baruchel (Hiccup), Craig Ferguson (Gobber), America Ferrera (Astrid), Christopher Mintz-Plasse (Fishlegs), Jim Cummings (Bork), Tress MacNeille (Bork's Wife)

Running Times: Gift of the Night Fury: 22 Minutes, Book of Dragons: 18 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

1.78:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic) / Blu-ray: Dolby TrueHD 7.1 (English); DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English), Dolby Surround 2.0 (English); Gift of the Night Fury only: Dolby Digital 5.1 (French, Spanish, Portuguese)
Subtitles: English, Spanish, French, Portuguese; Blu-ray only: English for Hearing Impaired
Most Extras Subtitled; DVD and Extras Closed Captioned
Release Date: November 15, 2011 / Suggested Retail Price: $25.99
Two single-sided, single-layered discs (1 BD-25 & 1 DVD-5) / Blue Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in Double DVD Pack ($19.99 SRP)

Buy Dragons: Gift of the Night Fury + Book of Dragons + Online Video Game from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD Double DVD

Last year, DreamWorks Animation delivered what many considered to be the studio's best film to date in How to Train Your Dragon. Adventurous and charming, the fantastical medieval yarn was good enough to earn an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature and actually pose some competition for perennial favorite Pixar. Alas, it was bested by Toy Story 3,
an outcome anticipated in the beloved blockbuster sequel's Best Picture nod and its studio's legacy of leadership.

Nonetheless, Dragon still marked an achievement for the reliably popular but typically second place DreamWorks. Not only did the film earn some of the warmest reviews of 2010, but it also put up one of the year's strongest box office showings. To do so, it defied the troubled track record of dragon movies and an average opening to gross a potent $218 million domestically (and even more than that overseas), making it DreamWorks' biggest North American earner outside the Shrek franchise (whose soft fourth and final installment barely surpassed it).

If you know anything about DreamWorks, you know that such a mix of critical and financial success was enough to have Jeffrey Katzenberg start singing the refrain of the Andrea True Connection's "More, More, More." The CEO has not allowed any of the studio's clear-cut in-house hits to go unfollowed in several years and Dragon has the added incentive of having been adapted from the first in a series of nine (and counting) children's novels by Cressida Cowell. "When" and "how many" were the only questions regarding sequels. Katzenberg has already confirmed at least two more Dragon movies, the first of which has been scheduled for June 2014 theatrical release.

That will be the longest wait we've had for a DreamWorks sequel, but lest you think kids could grow up with Hiccup and Toothless as distant, fading memories, DreamWorks has already taken steps to the contrary. A television series is coming to Cartoon Network next year. And even before that, this month saw the DVD and Blu-ray release of the 20-minute short films Dragons: Gift of the Night Fury and Book of Dragons. Whether purchased as two featherweight DVDs or as the more reasonable Blu-ray + DVD combo pack reviewed here, the never-before-seen cartoons share the spotlight with an online video game.

Hiccup fits Toothless with a new prosthesis meant to help him fly again in "Gift of the Night Fury." Astrid's yak nog does not catch on as a traditional seasonal treat as intended.

The O. Henry-ish title, wintry cover art, and calculated timing of Gift of the Night Fury (22:12) suggest it is a holiday special and it really and truly is. The island of Berk celebrates just one holiday each year: Snoggletog, which looks and sounds a lot like secular Christmas. As Viking residents prepare to observe the feast for the first time with dragons in their midst, all the winged creatures suddenly take off.

While now hook-legged protagonist Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is taken on an investigative flight and hopes to reunite with his black Night Fury dragon Toothless, Astrid (America Ferrera) tries to spread seasonal cheer back home with a new holiday tradition that winds up being more explosive than foreseen.

Gift wastes no time introducing you to its universe, nor does it need to, arriving as quickly as it does. Early scenes seem to establish this as the most action-packed half-hour holiday special ever and while it may still earn that title by lack of competition, the short offers an appropriate mix of tones and pacing. With the original voice cast all in tow and story artist Tom Owens comfortably promoted to director,
this is a quality, faithful extension of the original film, boasting top-notch production values rarely found in the direct-to-video market. To boot, the program is holidaysy enough to render seasonal and timely, but not enough to rule out year-round viewing.

Though on paper, this may conjure memories of The Star Wars Holiday Special with its comparable hastiness and own equivalent of Kashyyyk's Life Day, Gift of the Night Fury is a gratifyingly sensible and satisfying creation that deserves to be seen by a wider audience than it's likely to find here. The runtime and impressive effort point to this joining the ranks of the specials DreamWorks have been giving the television networks over the past few years. Perhaps it will make its way there next year. Certainly, one imagines that discs preceding broadcasts would bolster sales, but more fanfare was definitely due for this premiere.

The experiences of Bork the Bold, also known as Bork the Unfortunate, form the basis of "Book of Dragons." There be many lessons about many dragon species in the Book of Dragons.

On the other hand, Book of Dragons (17:38) feels more like a regular DVD/Blu-ray bonus feature, albeit one that would command attention and prominent billing (as one original supplement on each DreamWorks release has gotten for some time now). This short briefs us on the various different classes of dragons, relying on clips from the feature film, a tiny bit of original computer animation, and some stylized 2D. The lattermost is the short's most distinctive component as it passes down to us the legends of Bork the Bold, an unlucky man who discovered a number of do's and don'ts for dealing with different dragons.

Though visually creative, Book of Dragons is more informative than entertaining and serves best as an overview of the many species dramatized in the series, from the skeletal Boneknapper to the rambunctious Gronckle. It too retains original voice actors, for which DreamWorks deserves praise, but only a few characters from the film appear here and mostly speak in voiceover.

The Online Video Game part of the set comes into play via an insert and attached game card. The former directs you to the website DreamWorksDragons.com, while the latter supplies two unique codes for you and a friend to play through January 2013. The site is just DreamWorks' official How to Train Your Dragon web home which loads with a preview for this very product. It doesn't take long, however, for you to find Dragon Training Academy, the subsite you'll want.

Customize your human avatar down to clothing colors in the online video game "Dragon Training Academy." With Freeze Marblemight on top, a Gronckle breathes out some fire in a battle against a Hideous Zippleback.

There, you create an avatar to represent you, choosing gender; eye, head, and nose shape; and color of eyes, hair, and clothing. If you'd like, the site can help you come up with an appropriate name (mine was Freeze Marblemight). Once that fun process is done, you quickly set up an account with a username and password. Now, you're all set to start playing.

Play proceeds with exploration, part virtual pet and part standard games. You tame a variety of dragons, who you can feed, clean, and play with.

Dragon battles consist of light strategy and mild violence. These casually-paced fights allow you to use available powers (magnesium breath, wing block, tail bash, etc.) unique to your fighter to disarm your opponent. These are quite easy to win, though they gradually become more complex. After several victories with a dragon (each adding to your arsenal), you win badges and unlock additional adventures.

There are also at least four mini-games. Though timed, the first two of these are designed with the young in mind and should not evoke great frustration. They too get progressively harder, but only the final stages pose any real challenge. The 12-level "Legend of the Nadder" has you jump and fire your way through paths. In "Legend of the Gronckle", nine levels each give you two minutes to get around an obstacle course, with ample opportunity to extend that time limit with clock coin retrieval. In each, there is no death; spikes, flames, cliffs, falling rocks and ice, and burning coals only delay you for a few seconds and set you back a few centimeters.

In "Legend of the Gronckle", you race against the clock rolling around as a dragon. "Legend of the Scauldron" takes you under the water to eat fish and avoid rubbish.

By far more challenging than them, 9-level "Legend of the Night Fury" has you eliminate a skyful of villainous dragons and protect Vikings and sheep from being carried off by them. If you find those nine levels harrowing, just wait until you reach the final Survival level in which "infinite" dragons storm your region. My mouse gave out before I did, but neither before I racked up 2,300 points.

Moderately difficult and fun, "Legend of the Scauldron" has you swim through water, eating an assigned number of fish (and blow on Vikings) while avoiding trash (and bad fish).

I'm not one to buy or play a lot of video games (I peaked with Sega Genesis), but I found these offerings fairly diverting, admirably investable, and considerably better than the limited gaming capabilities of DVD. Gameplay is smooth but not without bugs.
A level of each "Gronckle" and "Night Fury" left me stuck and unable to escape, sometimes repeatedly. More troublingly, I was never able to load level 10 of "Nadder" (it remained indefinitely on a "Loading..." screen, rendering the remaining levels inaccessible). At one point in the middle of a strong round of "Scauldron", I was disconnected from the server and invited to connect to a new one. It didn't work and suddenly, I was unable to log back in and told to pick up the DVD at a store near me for a code. Very uncool, but a couple of hours later, I was able to get back in.

There are undoubtedly many hours of entertainment to be had; I got at least five hours of play from the five of eight available doors I unlocked. Both the theming and design are strong. Still, I can't imagine someone not young or already drawn to online games being too enamored with Dragon Training Academy.

The Vikings of Berk look forward to spending their first Snoggletog with dragons as friends.

VIDEO and AUDIO

While DreamWorks' animated TV programming has only been coming to DVD, these direct-to-video productions are treated to the 1080p presentations that Blu-ray affords and take full advantage of that. Gift of the Night Fury especially boasts fantastic 1.78:1 picture and Dolby TrueHD 7.1 sound. The sharp, vibrant, and essentially flawless picture delights the eyes as the tasteful, engrossing surround mix does the ears. Book of Dragons is likewise clean and crisp, though a tad dark and not nearly as jaw-droppingly dynamic. I can't imagine anyone with standards high enough to be less than blown away by this top-notch treatment.

As always, the DVD's 16:9-enhanced standard definition transfers lack the clarity and detail of the Blu-ray and add slight compression artifacts. On their own merits, they're fine and had a new format not come, I'd be calling them perfect. The same is true of the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtracks, which lack the impact of the TrueHD mixes but are lively and otherwise without issue.

The Snaptrapper is one of fourteen species profiled in the interactive Ultimate Book of Dragons. Fishlegs learns how to protect himself against a sleeping Meatlug in this Gobber's Training Secrets short.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

With just forty minutes of feature presentation, DreamWorks wisely delivers a good amount of supplements (all in high definition) to add appropriate value to this cut-rate combo pack.

First up come two Blu-ray exclusives, which easily could have been converted to DVD compatibility, without disc space being a concern.

"DreamWorks Dragons: Gift of the Night Fury - The Animators' Corner" is a picture-in-picture presentation on the holiday short. In the bottom right quarter of the screen, we get observations from a group of four (led by producer Kate Spencer and director Tom Owens), individual crew member remarks, and the occasional storyboard, concept art, or making-of footage.
This lends real insight into the special, confirming the production's ample care, thought, and substance that viewing makes obvious. The discussion covers technical and structural topics alike, never dumbing themselves down as if children would be tuning in.

"Ultimate Book of Dragons" is a virtual book chockfull of information and imagery on fourteen types of dragons belonging to seven different classes. Each set of pages includes an approximately 10-still art gallery, brief animations, and stats. Much of the data is simply relayed from Book of Dragons and it's doubtful you'll want to peruse (in the oft-forgotten true definition of the word), but it's nice to be able to get it in a book form as the characters in the short do.

The remaining extras fall under the "Explosive Features" heading (implying that the exclusives aren't explosive?!).

"Gobber's Training Secrets" (2:10) are six short animated character bits serving as lessons for dealing with different types of dragons. They're fun with the "Play All" feature but just as slight as the runtime implies.

Hiccup wakes up from a bad dream in this deleted scene. Some of the differences you're asked to spot are more obvious than others. Director Tom Owens teaches you how to draw a baby Gronckle.

Four deleted scenes (5:26) from Gift of the Night Fury are presented in story reel and test animation, each introduced by director Tom Owens. Some were more reworked than discarded, but a "missing toe" variation on mistletoe is notable.

"Spot the Difference" lets you examine subtly varied images of dragons and Vikings and figure out what is changed. There isn't much in the way of interaction, as you simply review the obvious variations. The presentation, which is the same on every visit, leaves much to be desired.

"Learn How to Draw: A Baby Gronckle" (4:04) is self-explanatory. At the drawing board, Gift Director Tom Owens takes us through the shapes in a number of steps. I always enjoy such tutorials and they're definitely not overused.

"Dragons Online Video Game" (0:54) is an apt ad/explanation for the gaming part of this set.

"World of DreamWorks Animation SKG" is the studio's usual franchise promotion, holding short music videos and ads for Shrek, How to Train Your Dragon, Kung Fu Panda, Madagascar, and Megamind. It's savvy marketing and brand strengthening, but not something you'll likely want to give the time needed to see in full.

"Hatch a Dragon" (0:28) animates two kids' drawings. I'm not sure what this is about, but they make more sense on the DVD where they are presented as Easter/Snoggletog/dragon eggs.

"Sneak Peek" offers a 1-minute preview of next year's How to Train Your Dragon Arena Spectacular, a promo also incorporated into the "World of DreamWorks" section.

No Snoggletog Party is complete without some printable holiday wrapping paper. You'll need a paper Viking house for your three-dimensional Dragons set. Hiccup dodges Toothless' friendly fire on the DVD's main menu.

One feature is exclusive to the DVD, the Dragon Lair DVD-ROM section. Par for the studio, this features printables with imagery from the film. Everything you need to "Host a Snoggletog Party" is provided in PDF format: wrapping paper, ornaments, cards, garland, gift tags, masks, dragon egg holders, and the necessary pieces for a game of Pin the Tail on the Dragon.

There's also, appropriately enough, a 20-page Book of Dragons adapted from the Blu-ray feature (lacking only the stats and animation). Finally, you can construct three-dimensional renderings of dragons and landscapes with 19 pages of cut-at-dotted-line blueprints with clear instructions.
It's impressive that DreamWorks continues to put in such effort for valuable DVD-ROM content, even though I would imagine not that many people take the time to even look at these, let alone print them out. Those who do embrace the arts and craft opportunities are sure to enjoy these.

Both Blu-ray and DVD open with a full trailer for Puss in Boots and a 30-second Kung Fu Panda 2 DVD ad (which oddly does emphasize the Double DVD Pack edition). Each is also accessible from a Previews menu.

Dragons fly around and produce flames above a book of dragons on the Blu-ray's scored menu. Pop Up menus, resuming post power-down, and bookmarks are unfortunately not utilized. The DVD's simpler main selection screen watches Toothless fire some friendly breaths at Hiccup. Its other screens feature other young masters and dragons interacting. Annoyingly (or thankfully, depending on your remote's whereabouts), Gift of the Night Fury starts playing if you take a while navigating on either format.

Unlike DreamWorks' usual side-by-side double DVD pack, the two discs here are packed in a single standard Blu-ray case, which is topped by a largely repetitive cardboard slipcover. The aforementioned inserts cover the gray DVD by default.

Hiccup finds where all of Berk's dragons have retreated in "Dragons: Gift of the Night Fury." Gobber hopes you heed his lessons in "Book of Dragons."

CLOSING THOUGHTS

How to Train Your Dragon isn't the 2010 animated film I'd most want (or expect) to see continued in a holiday special, but the substantial, faithful Gift of the Night Fury satisfies about as much as the esteemed feature from which it derives. DreamWorks bestows upon this and its lesser companion short the same respectful treatment they show their feature films, with a flawless Blu-ray presentation and a solid collection of extras. Though there may be less on-disc content and replay value than many movie DVDs, the modest list price is reasonable, especially if you intend to make good use of the online game (which they only promise being online through the end of 2012). While this package is not quite a must-have for any holiday collection, those looking to pick up holiday specials on Blu-ray do not have that many worthier alternatives to choose from.

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Reviewed November 30, 2011.



Text copyright 2011 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 2011 DreamWorks Animation SKG and DreamWorks Animation SKG Home Entertainment.
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