Even the death-defying aerialists of Spider-Man, the fanciful acrobats of Zarkana, and the human jumping jacks that animate Newsies face some serious competition in this kinetic eye-popper of a show, which director Nigel Jamieson has adapted from DreamWorks' hit 2010 animated film of the same name (which in turn stemmed from a children's book series by Cressida Cowell).
Moreover, its message, not too thumpingly driven home here, couldn't be timelier or more age-appropriate for the younger set that the show is certain to attract: Cooperation beats competition, and peaceful coexistence is far preferable to incessant war.
The setting is the Scottish coast, circa 343. In the face of fierce raids by their fire-breathing neighbors, Viking children such as shy, awkward Hiccup (likable Rarmian Newton alternates in the role with Riley Miner) and alpha-girl Astrid (Sarah McCreanor/Gemma Nguyen) must be trained up in the art of dragon-slaying.
Rising to the task is town blacksmith Gobber (the strapping Will Watkins), whose encounters of the dragonic kind have forced him to forge his own missing parts: here a hand, there a foot. Gobber's appendages may be mostly metal, but he's a softy at heart, intent on convincing Hiccup's father, the warrior Stoick (Robert Morgan), to place more faith in the son that the latter derides as "runny-nosed" and "pint-sized."
Hiccup is both smart and kind. Attempting to do his duty and slay, he instead wounds a dragon -- one on the "smallish" side, but among the most feared. In a frenzy of creativity (we see the sketches that Hiccup whips off projected in a coalescing swirl), Hiccup comes up with a prosthesis that will restore the power of flight to "Toothless" (the pet name that he bestows on his easily domesticated sidekick).
The show has a new way of dealing with dragons, and the repercussions will be vast and exciting. It's one thing to watch a movie version of this tale, even in 3D, and quite another when the creatures' roars -- plus the occasional purr -- rattle your seat, as their toasty breath, via blasts and columns of fire, warms your entire body.
The staging gets right down to the business of introducing the menagerie of some 23 fearsome beasts, several of whom also have their comic sides (expect a wave of kid giggles at the introduction of the stubby, warty, "gas"-powered Gronkles). The Vikings' pesky neighbors range in size from babies (there's an ingenious scene in which the junior dragons attempt to swallow the trainees whole) to the ultimate foe: the craggy-faced "Red Death" who looks to have the girth of a Boeing 747.
Projected graphics are brilliantly integrated into the nonstop action, enhanced by John Powell and Jónsi's sweeping Celtic-inflected score. There's even a brief segment in which the various "species" are illuminated by means of Indonesian shadow-puppets.
But for the most part the beasts are flying, prowling, and -- one way or another -- getting in your face. It's love and horror and first sight. Don't be surprised to see grownups (not to mention their children) clutching each other apprehensively. The whole show might be a bit much for really young ones, but for children who've reached the fascination-with-dinos phase (a healthy way to project their own hunger for power), it's an unbeatable treat.