In search of the perfect movie dragon
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Does the success of How To Train Your Dragon mean the search is over...?
Looking for the perfect movie dragon is like looking for love - you think you know what you're looking for, but you really won't know until you see it. Trouble is, what if you see it in an unsuitable context? The fact that Dreamworks' How To Train Your Dragon took an estimated $43m this weekend sent me musing that there are some great dragons out there in film history, sitting in bad, or inadequate movies.
Take Reign Of Fire, for instance...
I don't know if you've seen Rob Bowman's 2002 entry in this genre of fantasy movies. You can probably tell from the trailer that it isn't in itself, necessarily a terrific movie (although I retain a soft spot for it). The late megastardom of Christian Bale has probably given Reign Of Fire - which deals with the struggles of post-apocalyptic survivors in Britain after a revived species of dragon turns the world to cinders - some after-market buzz that will hopefully lead more people to it.
But if you haven't seen it, I bet what you saw of the flying nasties in the trailer above made an impression. That film has, to date, the best dragons I have ever seen. Dying, they hit the ground like airliners; attacking, they barbecue the land like napalm-spitting Apaches so that they can feed on the ashes. These dragons mix elegance and deadliness just the way you'd like to think dragons would, if they were anything but fictitious cultural scarecrows invented to keep medieval fiefdoms intact from invaders.
[To boot, it's an interesting to note that the 'they were there all the time underground' motif of Reign Of Fire was picked up for Spielberg's War Of The Worlds three years later).
Christian Bale tackling his foe in Reign Of Fire (2002)
The director of Elektra (2005) clearly has enough budget for exactly 9 minutes of actual dragon-action (in terms of CGI and other VFX/SFX set-ups), roughly on a par with Disney's Dragonslayer back in 1982. Good dragons cost money. You want 30 minutes of dragons in your movie with no extra budget? They'll be worse dragons. The fewer dragons per pound per movie, the better they will be, and both Reign Of Fire and Dragonslayer observe this law.
Vermithrax Pejorative rises to shine in a so-so movie.
I didn't think Dragonslayer's Vermithrax Pejorative could be challenged until I saw what Cinesite and Digital Dimension accomplished in Reign Of Fire, and ultimately I think the directors of these movies were wise to stick to the moderate end of the inverse 'quality/screen-time' ratio governing movie dragons. Not only does familiarity breed contempt (I doubt that Giger's xenomorph got more than 50 seconds' screen time during Alien back in 1979), but how much 'bad dragon' could you take?
"The fewer dragons per pound per movie, the better they will be, and both Reign Of Fire and Dragonslayer observe this law"
Until Phil Tippett put his 'go-motion' technique into action to bring dragons to life for Disney, movie dragons were well-designed, but inevitably rather jerky, such as Ray Harryhausen's elegant flying fire-breather in The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad.
I don't know what to say about Dragonheart (1996), really. The quality of the CGI just wasn't quiiiiite there for this type of creature back in the 1990s. Despite what was achieved in Jurassic Park (1993) in this field in that period, there were loads of directors (including James Cameron and George Lucas, who let major movie projects such as Avatar and the Star Wars prequels wait out new advances in the CGI revolution) who didn't feel that it could be done yet. Perhaps the fact that CGI's then state-of-the-art was so suitable for sci-fi (but not yet ready for Tolkien) was one of the factors that made the 1990s one of the best decades ever for science-fiction movies.
Apart from anything else, the tone of Dragonheart is mixed - Draco's semi-Pixar/Disney mien is out-of-place in the Excalibur-like setting. It's like finding Ace Ventura running across Martin Sheen in the jungles of Apocalypse Now. It had too much hyper-realism for a fable like How To Train Your Dragon (or those dragons in The Neverending Story or Eragon, etc) , not enough for the visceral conflicts depicted in Reign Of Fire and Dragonslayer.
For the minute, I insist that I have found my ideal movie dragon. Impressive as Vermithrax Pejorative is in Dragonslayer, frightening as he is, he belongs to the world of fables. If you want a street dragon, something that looks like it belongs in a dusty but accurate zoological reference book, something that can truly kick your arse on the ground or (as in the following clip, which does not have the original soundtrack) in the air, the revived species from Reign Of Fire have no serious competition, yet...
Matthew McConaughey fighting the enemy to a user-chosen soundtrack in Reign Of Fire (2002)
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