The success of an animated family film isn't just measured anymore by its box-office receipts.
There are, of course, the action figures and related merchandise. And one also must look at whether it has "legs" after it's left the big screen, in terms of DVD sales, sequels and spinoff projects and theme park attractions. Now there's one more forum -- the theater.
Two of DreamWorks' biggest properties, "Shrek" and "Madagascar," have been transformed into theatrical spectacles. Now, the studio is bringing another one of its giants to the live arena. "DreamWorks' How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular," based on the studio's hit 2010 film, flies into HP Pavilion in San Jose for nine shows beginning Wednesday.
"Every property has its own DNA and its own life. You try to figure out if there an opportunity to extend it and how best to do it," says Eric Stevens, DreamWorks' head of Live Entertainment. "Some things belong in a theater, and some things belong in a theme park."
When it came to "Dragon," the answer was pretty obvious.
"When thinking about dragons, we went, 'Well, you know, if you are really going to be true to this -- where could you bring a dragon to life?' When you start thinking about making it life-size and real and 40-foot wingspans and flying, there aren't a lot of places you can do that except an arena."
It's the studio's first foray into the live-action arena world, a genre that is taking the touring entertainment business by storm. Productions range from musical theater productions to immersive concerts and have featured such titles as "Batman Live" and "Star Wars: In Concert," "Video Games Live" and "Walking With Dinosaurs."
"Dragon," by most accounts, is a real doozy, having wowed critics and fans alike in multiple cities since making its debut in Australia earlier this year.
DreamWorks partnered with Australia's Global Creatures, the company that hit gold with the "Walking With Dinosaurs" arena tour. It's easy to see how watching "Dinosaurs" could inspire a show like "Train Your Dragon."
"That's really when the fun began," Stevens says of the early days of the project, which started roughly four years ago. "We all sat back and said, 'Imagine if dragons could fly. What would that be like?' "
In a word? Massive.
The show features 13 dragons, representing nine different "species," and each requires multiple people to operate it. These moving beasts are downright gigantic, weighing as much as 2.6 tons and featuring wingspans as wide as 46 feet.
And, oh, yes, they can fly -- at speeds up to 15 to 20 mph -- thanks to a state-of-the-art track system that borrows from technology used in car manufacturing plants, railroads and roller coasters.
Yet, the challenge didn't end there. We're not just talking about generic dragons, after all, but ones that starred in a hit movie. Get one little detail wrong, and heaven forbid, the creators would have to answer to thousands of passionate young fans.
In essence, they had to match both the look and the personality of each dragon -- especially for the lead dragon, Toothless, who was a well-developed character in the film. That required adding a level of rich detail to the creations.
"The eyes have emotion. The mouths move, in many directions," Stevens says. "They are really the most advanced puppets and animatronic creatures ever developed."
Faithful to flick
The production closely follows the storyline of the film, which, in turn, was based on a 2003 book of the same name by British author Cressida Cowell. The property also spawned an animated TV series, "Dragons: Riders of Berk," on the Cartoon Network as well as a video game for multiple platforms. A full-length theatrical sequel, "How to Train Your Dragon 2," is in the works and should be in theaters by summer 2014.
"The film was incredibly popular," Stevens says of "Dragon," which has earned more than $217 million in the U.S. "I think what connected with audiences at the end of the day was a great story. It's really, at its core, a boy and his dog story. It just happens to be with a dragon. There are great personal relationships, such as between the father and the son. There is a strong female character in it. It's about friendship. So I think it really resonated at a lot of different levels, as a film. The challenge (in making the arena show) was how do we bring that to life in a way that really pushes the boundaries of imagination?"
Beyond the dragons, the production features a full cast of the film's characters -- including the hero, Hiccup, played alternately by Riley Miner and Ramian Newton on tour. Miner sees this show as a great way to introduce young fans to the joy of live theater.
"No kid really likes to go to the opera or the ballet or Shakespeare," he says. "This is definitely an awesome family thing to do."
The show re-creates the film's setting -- the fictional island of Berk, a Viking outpost dealing with major dragon issues -- through the use of multiple movie screens, both set on the arena floor and behind the stage.
"It lets us transport the audience over mountains and oceans as the dragons fly," Stevens says. "You really are immersed in this incredible environment and experience -- and that can only be done in an arena. So, at HP Pavilion, what is so exciting is it's really like you are transported to another world. For two hours, every family kind of goes on this adventure together."
Follow Jim Harrington at Twitter.com/jimthecritic, Facebook.com/jim.bayareanews and http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/concerts.
'How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular'
A theatrical staging based on the movie
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday, 3 and 7 p.m. Dec. 27-28,
11 a.m. and 7 p.m. Dec. 29, 1 and 5 p.m. Dec. 30
Where: HP Pavilion, 525 W. Santa Clara St., San Jose
Tickets: $29.50-$72.50; www.ticketmaster.com