DreamWorks has been extremely savvy about keeping its animated movie franchises alive via television, including series versions of “Madagascar” and Kung Fu Panda” for Nickelodeon. Add to the menagerie another adaptation of one of its most satisfying films, “How to Train Your Dragon,” only this time for Cartoon Network. Featuring much of the original vocal cast, the program is dazzling visually, and pretty effortlessly picks up where the narrative left off. Those assets, as well as a brew of sight gags and warmth, mostly offset the deficiencies, helping “Dragons” achieve a smooth takeoff.
Although the Vikings have made peace with the dragons at the film’s conclusion thanks to the efforts of Hiccup (again voiced by Jay Baruchel), adjusting to village life with these giant beasts around isn’t easy. In the premiere, for example, there’s the little matter of dragons scaring the hell out of livestock. The dragons are also useful for transportation, yes, but like overly rambunctious Saint Bernards, they devour huge amounts of food and rain down poop. Think a flock of giant seagulls.
The previewed episodes largely hinge on this tension, including, as Hiccup puts it, “those who will never accept the dragons.” In that regard, these installments also betray the show’s initial weaknesses: A lot of hemming and hawing, but a lack of actual villains and not-particularly-stirring array of characters, despite reuniting players like Baruchel and America Ferrera.
Nevertheless, the half-hour series format and youthful skew mutes those narrative shortcomings, and the over-the-moon (or at least cloud bank) feeling when the dragons take flight offers enough excitement to replicate the movie’s principal appeal.
There’s obviously a crass commercial element to all this — something has to keep the merchandising machine humming between movies — as well as the puzzling question of why DreamWorks’ name belongs in the title, which probably doesn’t mean much to the average tyke.
Still, no one can accuse the studio of approaching these brand extensions of its shows in slapdash fashion. And if the DreamWorks’ feature output has at times appeared more adept at seizing upon big promotable concepts than executing them, “Dragon” and now its episodic offspring stick the landing better than most.