It’s a question to vex even the most savvy marketer: In this age of streamable content, when nearly everything you could watch, read, or listen to is living in the digital ether, what will entice someone to buy a hard copy of it? Particularly, say, a season’s worth of a TV series on Blu-ray. The obvious goodies are the usual behind-the-scenes materials: Making-of docs, commentary tracks, blooper reels, and more all offer the completist and/or die-hard fan extra reasons to plunk down additional money in exchange for a wealth of bonus features.
In the case of HBO, with its pricey but top-shelf Blu-ray collections, this impetus is even more pronounced. Given the exorbitant cost of the pay-cable channel’s discs, there’s a built-in need to deliver more than the average season of TV’s extra content. For Game Of Thrones season 7, with its already reduced round of episodes (a mere seven installments, compared to the usual 10), that depletion of primary material has been addressed with an appealing counteroffer: The show has produced a new 40-minute-plus animated feature, Conquest & Rebellion, which provides a history of Westeros that clarifies George R.R. Martin’s exhaustively voluminous background, and streamlines it into a narrative that finally makes sense for even the casual viewer. For anyone who has seen the “Histories And Lore” animated featurettes of past season collections, it’s basically a supersized installment.
HBO recently hosted theatrical screenings of the new special, paired with a big-screen showing of episode four of last season, “The Spoils Of War” (a.k.a. the one where Daenerys lays waste to Jaime Lannister’s troops). While it was fun watching Drogon absolutely annihilate on the big screen, the bigger curiosity was the animated history of Westeros, from the first appearance of the Targaryens all the way through to the beginning of the series. Is it worth checking out? Yes and no.
For people excited to watch a rousing animated short film, full of fire-breathing dragons, massive battles, and impressively nimble design, this is not the feature for you. Conquest & Rebellion is done in the motion-comic style, livened up with the periodic 3-D CGI interjection. Those unfamiliar with motion comics should think of it as someone taking a comics panel, removing the text boxes and sound-effect bubbles, then selecting one or more elements of the image and adding movement to them. Instead of a static image of Thor looking out a window, with a motion comic his cape will be swaying gently in the breeze, or the weather outside will change. The following clip gives a good sense of the tone of the entire story, even if the initial 3-D dragon effects creates a somewhat misleading impression that Conquest & Rebellion will be chock-full of such flourishes.
In other words, it’s a history lesson, made more appealing by having the stories of the various families and lands retold by beloved characters, voices supplied by the actual actors. While that includes Nikolaj Coster-Waldau’s Jaime Lannister, Sophie Turner’s Sansa Stark, and more (an unabashedly nasty recounting of the Iron Islands’ struggles is supplied with glee by Pilou Asbæk’s Euron Greyjoy), the majority of the narrative is provided by Harry Lloyd, who played Viserys Targaryen (Dany’s sadistic and ill-fated brother) in the show’s first season. With aristocratic relish, he outlines the history of Westeros that saw his ancestors steadily seize power over the entire region, and the downfall that came with the madness of King Aerys, eventually killed by Jaime at the conclusion of the war, during the sack of King’s Landing.
For anyone who enjoys Game Of Thrones but isn’t about to set themselves to the task of making sense of the sprawling and Silmarillion-esque amount of detail to be mined from Martin’s collected writings and the copious allusions to the past littered throughout the series, the special is a useful and engaging way to make sense of Westeros’ messy history. Finally, all those Targaryens and Lannisters from the distant past don’t just blend together in a jumble of awkward names and places we’re supposed to remember. Instead, we see how Aegon conquered the Seven Kingdoms, watching as he and his sisters lay waste to the armies that stood in their way (or in the case of Dorne, something far more unusual). It makes the history come alive as all good narratives of the past should, keeping the attention of those of us who tend to get sleepy-eyed when the show starts rattling off long-dead people and battles and expecting us to keep up. Especially as the final season ramps up, and casual viewers could use reminding just what the hell happened with Jon Snow’s parents, Conquest & Rebellion is an invaluable tool.
But anyone looking for the animated equivalent to an episode of the show—or even a modern-day version of something like Rankin/Bass’ Hobbit adaptation—is bound to come away a little disappointed. The designs are often beautifully rendered, elegant matte paintings come to life with striking compositions even as the movement pulls the viewer’s eye to attention. And there’s fun to be had in appreciating the little touches of personality added to each character’s contributions to the story, from the script penned by show writer Dave Hill. (There’s a good beat where it’s sneeringly implied the only reason House Martell controlled Dorne is because no one in their right mind would want the desert wasteland.)
Still, it ultimately feels like a Blu-ray extra, not a piece of entertainment that can stand on its own. In that regard, it’s a missed opportunity for HBO. With more than a year still to go before the final season of Game Of Thrones hits screens, providing a stand-alone animated special of Westerosi history could have been a treat, a rousing adventure to tide loyal audiences over until the beginning of the end. Instead, it feels like someone didn’t do the math, either on the extended break timeline of the show or the monetization potential for a more desirable mini-movie set in the Game Of Thrones world, hitched to the wagon of the seventh-season Blu-rays. There’s a reason HBO is currently mulling over four spin-offs to the blockbuster series: George R.R. Martin has created one of the great fictional universes, a place fans want to return to in many forms. A history lesson is great, Game Of Thrones, but next time, set your sights on conquering the realm, not just keeping the fire burning.