Today: June 18, 2024

Here Be Dragons

Dragons are an essential part of fantasy lore the world over. The best-known pen and paper RPG of all time knew what it was doing when it titled itself Dungeons & Dragons.  Of course they’ve been more than a few good dragon movies over the years, though mostly in the post Star Wars era, when special effects techniques caught up with the challenge of bringing such beings to life on screen.  With The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug being released this week Ed Boff looks at a selection of other movies featuring these noble wyrms.

A live-action Disney flick (well, co-production with Paramount) that was a big release in 1981, but it didn’t do well probably because people weren’t expecting something of this tone from them.  Directed and co-written by Matthew Robbins, this tells of an attempt to slay the dragon Vermithrax Perjoritive (best dragon name EVER) by Galen (Peter Niccol) who is an apprentice to the last great sorcerer, Ulrich (Sir Ralph Richardson).  The problem this film has is an overly grim atmosphere, which given it was made in the first big blockbuster boom, is probably what turned audiences off.  Hardly any characters are likeable (the King here has started a lottery to pick virgin sacrifices to the beast), and those that are either don’t do enough or end up served well done.  Also, the lead is kind of arrogant, and there’s no real sense of fun and adventure. It’s all a bit mean spirited.

There’s still some good stuff in here though.  The finale and story has this great melancholy, in that we’re seeing the end of the last age of magic, which is balanced by a subplot involving the rise of Christianity.  Also, it’s a joy to see Ralph Richardson in anything; you buy him as a wizard instantly.  But best of all is ol’ Vermithrax herself.  Although it’s about an hour and a quarter until we actually see her properly, she’s worth the wait (well, just).  Created by Industrial Light and Magic, she’s bought to life by puppetry, full-size animatronics, and a technique called Go Motion – which was a less jerky form of stop-motion.  The end result is incredible, looking nearly a decade ahead of its time.  In the end, the film is worth a watch once. Don’t watch thinking it’s going to be a fun, fantasy ride, but there is a reason that it has some famous fans like George R.R. Martin and Guillermo Del Toro.

The Flight Of Dragons
From Rankin-Bass Productions, this animated title was originally released direct to video, but has since developed a strong cult following.  The film is actually a mix of two sources – the title comes from a book examining the science of mythological beasts by Peter Dickinson and the plots is based on the novel The Dragon And The George by Gordon R. Dickson.  From the latter it takes the idea of someone from our world entering an alternate fantasy reality and ending up in the body of a dragon (as in becoming a dragon, not eaten by one).  What it takes from the former though is where things get really interesting.  The whole concept is of an examination of the roles of magic and science, so the main character is Peter Dickinson himself, who’s able to look at events with a scientific perspective.  Thus it gives explanations for matters like how dragons fly, why they breathe fire and why they like big piles of gold (turns out all of those are related).

There’s more than just explanation though; the film properly examines the role of tales of magic and such in our development.  Its whole thesis is that science is the only strong way forward, but matters such as old beliefs in sorcery have their place as an inspiration.  This gives the story a strong sense of melancholy as it’s shown that magic’s place in the world is coming to an end, so the struggle is to create a realm where it can still exist, and let mankind develop its true destiny.  There’s also a great ending too, where Dickinson faces down the main villain with his pure belief in science! It’s like Professor Brian Cox spirit-bombing Sauron. This deconstructive approach to fantasy lead to another good Rankin-Bass film from around the same time: The Last Unicorn.  The Flight of Dragons is a tonne of fun too, with really endearing dragon characters.

Reign Of Fire (Main Picture)
An important thing before going into this movie; don’t believe the poster or box art.  It shows huge swarms of dragons burning London while facing the whole RAF.  While seeing that would indeed be totally sweet, that’s not what this film is about. This is instead set mainly long after WW2, in one of the more original post-apocalypse scenarios of recent years.  Work on the London Underground (nice Quatermass nod) accidentally unleashes a slumbering dragon from its tomb, and soon the world is overrun.  Years later, a group of survivors (lead by Christian Bale) find themselves visited by American militia (lead by Matthew McConaughey) on a bold mission to stop the threat once and for all.

Relatively few movies have really played with the idea of putting dragons in a modern setting, and Reign Of Fire pulls it off very well.  In particular, it successfully manages to merge the same sort of tropes from fables like the Legend of St. George with an “after the end” story. The dragons look great too, with a very plausible animal movement and excellent CGI effects that hold up very well a decade later.  All this and good character interactions lead to a fairly underrated end of the world picture.  If you’re bored with yet more zombie Armageddons, here’s something different.

The tale of Beowulf is one of the oldest surviving epic poems in its original manuscript form.  There have been a number of attempted adaptations over the years, but more than a few of them mainly focus on the first parts of the poem, Beowulf’s battle with Grendel and then Grendel’s mother. The 2007 film version directed by Robert Zemekis cleverly reworks the old Beowulf story, with a clever script from Neil Gaiman and Roger Avery.  Not only does it establish early on that there are dragons – and one is coming – but it also establishes a more solid reason for why this dragon is here.  This is all a part of this film’s goal of deconstructing the original poem, given that it’s told mostly by Beowulf himself, who is likely to not be the most reliable of narrators.

The pay-off is a spectacular third act with a truly imposing golden dragon laying waste to Beowulf’s kingdom, and his battle to stop it.  The beast itself is a design triumph, especially the way it flies. Beowulf’s earlier battles also ensure that you believe this thing is a real challenge to him. The film as a whole is actually pretty underrated, with perhaps a lot of the early backlash against it being down to it being one of the first releases of the current 3D age.  Beowulf is a movie that deserves its second chance, especially for the fantastic final boss fight it offers.

How To Train Your Dragon
3D works best when it’s used for a sense of depth. So using it in a film with a lot of flying scenes is always a good move.  Adding some fantastic action sequences and 3D with dragons and Vikings is an absolute treat. Based on a popular series of books of Cressida Cowell, this tells of a small island with a rather overabundance of dragons, and how one young boy there, Hiccup, ends up trying to prove himself by befriending one of the beasts.  It’s a very simple, heartfelt story that has a lot of good morals, and takes a few more risks than one would expect from a family film – most notably the ending.

Where this film really shines though is in its design.  There are a whole bunch of different dragon breeds featured; all notable or memorable.  The lead dragon though is the Night Fury called Toothless, and he is a near perfect character design. It’s a very exact blend of genuinely animalistic, thus potentially dangerous, but also the right sort of cute, like a cat.  He’s a very simple design, but one with a lot of expression, meaning you buy him as a character.  Thus the friendship between him and Hiccup has so much weight and depth to it.  This film marked a definite evolution for Dreamworks animation, and the sequel, due out next year, is well anticipated.

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