A brief history of dragons in cinema

As Age Of The Dragons arrives on DVD and Blu-ray, Duncan takes a look at the history of dragons in the movies…

It’s no wonder so many of us have grown up geeky, for dragons have been a strong mainstay of children’s movies for decades now. With their inextricable link to the fantasy genre, many of us have been brainwashed into a fixation with them before we even knew what was happening. Well, that’s a decent enough excuse, anyway, should you ever find yourself needing one in a dragon-based argument, which I’m sure there aren’t nearly enough of.

Pity the children growing up from the mid-nineties onwards, as they’ve barely been able to make it through one whole year without a dragon movie being released, a trend which sees no sign of slowing. This year has already seen the release of Age Of The Dragons, starring Danny Glover and Vinnie Jones and will soon see the hotly (no pun intended) anticipated Your Highness, which features a dragon in the new poster and shows at least some form of hydra in the trailer.

Most importantly, though, we’ll finally have a big screen version of Smaug, courtesy of the stupendously talented folks at Weta Workshop and Mr Peter Jackson, when The Hobbit is released, though the timing of Smaug’s appearance is dependent on what adjustments they make to the original narrative. There are no words to describe how very exciting that will be.

So, with a passing salute to Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson, let’s take a look at the highs and lows of dragons in cinema, highlighting some personal favourites along the way.

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I think it’s fairly safe to say, that Disney is the champion of all things dragon. It’s responsible for the first film in this article, The Reluctant Dragon (1941), as well at least one dragon movie for every century since, portraying them in every conceivable light. The Reluctant Dragon marked an early portrayal of the species as intelligent, misunderstood and, err, incredibly camp creatures, while setting up the narrative threads of a relationship that can be forged between a child and dragon, a thematic used as recently as last year.

Den Of Geek hero and special effects legend, Ray Harryhausen, soon turned his hand to depicting a dragon, as one of the many mythical monsters that have threatened Sinbad over the years in The 7th Voyage Of Sinbad (1958). It’s no surprise that the job of blending a ‘real’ (i.e. non-cartoon) dragon in a feature film fell to the great man and the simplicity of depicting one as a violent guardian is perfectly understandable. I’d be miffed if someone broke in to my cave, especially an unbearded Sinbad, when everybody knows that Sinbad should always be adorned by facial hair.

The following year, Disney released Sleeping Beauty (1959) and used the evil Maleficent’s transformation into a towering black dragon (accompanied by the fantastic “Now shall you deal with me, O Prince, and all the powers of hell!”) to do what Disney does best, traumatise children the world over with one of its incomparable villains. It’s also worth noting that this particular climax was one of many references used in its own Enchanted, decades later.

The Sword In The Stone (1963) saw Disney use a dragon for more comedic, but no less disturbing reasons during the duel between Mim and Merlin, Mim evidently being a character whose deep psychological scar on me still remains, as merely thinking about her makes me shudder. After the cheating witch has been through an ingenious bout of animalistic countermoves with Merlin, she ends up turning into a particularly ugly, purple dragon, only to become more visually unpleasant once Merlin’s masterstroke is revealed. Ick.

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Pete’s Dragon (1977, Disney again) returned to the boy and his dragon concept, with a fine musical mix of live-action and animation, though by far the scariest aspect of the movie is Pete’s hair, an irritating, moppish style that seems to have permeated Hollywood for as long as dragons themselves. Still, Disney quickly made amends by teaming up for a co-production with Paramount for the fantastically grim Dragonslayer (1981).

Dragonslayer is a movie I adore and one I had the opportunity to be both amazed and terrified by at the cinema when I was only a young boy. I only picked it up on DVD a couple of years ago, with a rather deceptive, hand-drawn cover, splashed with Disney’s logo multiple times and stating that the film contains “mild horror”.

Now, if you’re a parent and considering showing the film to your child, then you should try to remember that kids’ films back in the eighties were so much grittier and darker than most think. A few examples that have stuck with me in the years since are the head splittings/swamp death in Krull, the shapeshifter in The Last Starfighter, Courtney Cox’s leg injury in Masters Of The Universe and all of The Dark Crystal.

Dragonslayer is no exception, with its confusing (at the time) gender swapping subplot and the shocking fate of one character, which still seems unbelievably brave for Disney, making for a film that should definitely be vetted before being shown to a room full of children. Excellent stuff, though.

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1982 saw both Q: The Winged Serpent and The Flight Of Dragons, again demonstrating opposite ends of the dragon spectrum. The Flight Of Dragons was a particular childhood favourite of a friend of mine, which I’m struggling to remember, while Q, I seem to recall, starts with a topless woman having her head eaten. It’s strange how the memory chooses what to remember.

The NeverEnding Story (1984) followed and was another cinematic memory I’ll never forget, at the time proving to be one of the most spectacular and epic films I’d ever seen. Its genius, in a similar way to The Princess Bride, is in isolating the main, relatable character of Bastian to a real location and letting us follow along with him in disbelief as he becomes more and more integral the film’s story. Like Dragonslayer, it left another terrifying memory with me: Atreyu’s encounter with the wolf-like Gmork. The effects might have become less impressive over the years, but the fear’s still there.

By contrast, NeverEnding Story’s dragon, Falkor (the luck dragon, to be precise), is quite possibly the most adorable ever created of his kind, being largely made to resemble a big, fluffy puppy, with an incredibly soothing voice, courtesy of Alan Oppenheimer. It took the boy and his dragon thematic to new heights of desirability, by having Falkor turn the tide on some oiks, while riding on him was accompanied by the rousing track Atreyu Meets Falkor by Klaus Doldinger and Giorgio Moroder, a piece of music that still makes me a little too excited.

Noah Hathaway, who played Atreyu, is about to return to films after a rather long absence, alongside Danny Trejo, Tony Todd, Sonny Chiba and Mark Hamill. It’s called Sushi Girl and looks to be a potential grindhouse movie, so for better or worse, it’s now on my radar, especially with that cast.

Then, it would appear dragons, like many other genre monsters, seemed to fall off the radar for a decade. I couldn’t think of any films or find any that appeared during the gap, so I can’t help but wonder if the advent of CGI in Young Sherlock Holmes (1985, and another cracking/upsetting childhood favourite) made the studios wait until effects could more realistically portray the beasts on the big screen. Or they were sick of the sight of them by that point.

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Dragonworld appeared in 1994, which I won’t excuse myself for not watching, as it looks pretty terrible, and why would I want to waste valuable words when the next film to feature is Dragonheart (1996).

The Reluctant Dragon was, no doubt, an influence on the mighty Dragonheart, from the mutually beneficial truce reached between heroic slayer and beast, down to the fake demise of both dragons, eventually leading to an acceptance and unity between the two races.

It’s a film that features a whole cluster of things I love, including the already missed Pete Postlethwaite, the ever-excellent Jason Isaacs, the stunning, beautiful and criminally underused Dina Meyer (I could go on) and the majestic voice of Sean Connery as Draco the dragon. However, a bearded Dennis Quaid trumps them all.

Dragonheart is a film I can watch over and over again and is one that comes wholeheartedly recommended in every way, from David Thewlis’ portrayal of despicable Einon to Julie Christie’s appearance as his heartbroken mother. The DVD also features a magnificent DTS soundtrack, should you possess the necessary kit, so I can’t help but wonder why on earth Universal hasn’t released it on Blu-ray yet. It also spawned a straight-to-video sequel in 2000, Dragonheart: A New Beginning, but I like to pretend that never happened.

The Magic Sword: Quest For Camelot and Mulan both appeared in 1998. Camelot, I don’t think I’ve ever sat down to watch properly, but that will soon be amended for future attention among these pages, and it features the voice of Pierce Brosnan, alongside an impressive cast including Cary Elwes, Gary Oldman, Gabriel Byrne and John Gielgud.

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Disney’s Mulan is another favourite of mine and is also in need of a Blu-ray release as soon a spossible. Den Of Geek talking point, Eddie Murphy, voices the dragon in question, Mushu, the rather diminutive comedy sidekick who accompanies Mulan on her quest. May I request that all Spaced references wait until the end. It’s a fine film and one that’s often overlooked, despite featuring some of Disney’s best action scenes, all accompanied by the rich score composed by the masterful Jerry Goldsmith, which is well worth a listen.

We’ll quickly skim over the nauseating and shocking disaster that was Dungeons And Dragons (2000). Oh, Jeremy Irons, what did you do? I’d also state that it ranks as the worst of Bruce Payne’s career, a career that includes the hysterically rum Full Eclipse, a werewolf-action-cop-thriller, which also stars Mario Van Peebles and Patsy Kensit. There’s no Blu-ray release for that yet, either.

2001 fared infinitely better with the beautiful and haunting Spirited Away and the first in DreamWorks mega-franchise, Shrek. Both are great animated films and huge successes, but completely different entities, with Hayao Miyazaki opening my mind to a whole new style of narrative in Spirited Away (whose dragon content I won’t try to explain, mostly because I don’t think I can), while Shrek saw Eddie Murphy return to comedy sidekick mode, only this time being wooed by a dragon, even though he’s a donkey. The mind boggles. Maybe the two films have more in common that I thought.

Reign Of Fire (2002) proved to be much more straightforward, with the rising star of Christian Bale (getting plenty of growling practice) facing off against dragons, in a film which was utterly hamstrung by its budget after releasing posters that had most of us drooling at the prospect of dragon versus helicopters in a fire strewn London, but delivered no real spectacle.

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Once my expectations were lowered, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, mostly for Matthew McConaughey’s scenery chewing turn as unhinged dragon slayer, Van Zan, which I’d argue is still his most different and interesting role to date. I do so wish that McConaughey would come back to genre movies. He’s completely wasted in the endless rom-com fodder that seems to have dominated the latter part of his career. Time for him to shave his head and grow a beard again.

George And The Dragon (2004) is on my ‘to watch’ list as it features James Purefoy wielding a sword, something you might know I’m rather a fan of. Though I suspect from the child-friendly poster that it won’t be the brutal slashfest that both Solomon Kane and Ironclad proved to be.

Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire (2005) featured dragons as part of the Triwizard Tournament, with poor Harry somewhat stiffed on his draw of the Hungarian Horntail, as he has to steal a golden egg from it. It’s only a small scene in what I still think is the finest Harry Potter film to date.

Eragon (2006) followed the next year, but I still haven’t summoned up the courage to try and watch the film after everyone I know who saw it found very little to recommend it. The combination of Jeremy Irons and dragons sharing screen time again really doesn’t help, especially when combined with Robert Carlyle and John Malkovich. Not to knock either actor’s talent, but they are prone to take pay cheque choices and I still haven’t forgiven Malkovich for his lazy turn in Mutant Chronicles when everyone else was trying their hardest.

2007 saw the eclectic triple release of Dragon Wars: D-War (which I avoided for the same reasons as Eragon), a shouty, motion captured Ray Winstone in Beowul.f and dragon loyalist, Disney, giving us the superb Enchanted.

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I have quite an affection for Beowulf, not just for bringing the quote “I’ve come to kill your monster” into my life, but for being truly disturbing at times, an emotion that’s rarely evoked in me after too  many years of horror movie addiction. I don’t just mean from the imagery conjured by the thought of Winstone and Sir Anthony Hopkins getting naked for a bit of motion capture, but the sense of unease that permeates the film and is embodied in Crispin Glover’s performance as Grendel, which truly terrified me.

The dragon scene itself also contains quite a strong sense of brutality, with Angelina Jolie’s incarnation spitting out half chewed soldiers, as an elderly, but no less bad ass, Beowulf attempts to stop her rampage with some truly visceral techniques.

Light relief then, with Enchanted, a truly terrific and modern spin on the Disney princess tale, which still manages to be both classic and referential to many past Disney movies. So, as mentioned back with Sleeping Beauty, Enchanted chose the end of that film to pay homage to its history, this time with the perfectly cast Susan Sarandon as the wicked witch.

If you still haven’t seen Enchanted, perhaps out of some feeling that Disney movies aren’t your cup of tea, or the prospect of musical moments is too much, then think of it as a post-modern genre piece. Watch it and then let me know if Amy Adams doesn’t completely win you over with her beautifully endearing insanity.

2008 featured the French animated film Dragon Hunters, which shouldn’t be confused with the dodgy looking, live-action Dragon Hunter released in 2009, neither of which I’ve seen. Though, in the former year, I did watch The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor and, um, quite liked it. I haven’t re-watched it, but maybe I just can’t resist the charms of Brendan Fraser and wonky CGI, or most likely I was drunk. Jet Li does turn into a giant, three-headed dragon at least, so it does qualify for an entry here.

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Thankfully, things can end on a supremely high note, as DreamWorks’ How To Train Your Dragon (2010) is the last entry. It very much harks back to the boy and his dragon theme, but does so with a superb sense of ingenuity and spirit and features another belting score, this time from Bourne master, John Powell, but the less you know about the content, the better.

It’s a film that many of us here have championed since its release last year, and one which we’ll continue to support, much like The Iron Giant. Both films share similarities and carry an extraordinary amount of emotional weight. So, if you’re one of the few who’s still not been brainwashed by us, then I’d implore you to watch both.

As I type this last sentence, The Hobbit has just begun filming in New Zealand, which is most fitting, as the next dragon we see on the big screen, might just be the best one yet.

Age Of The Dragons is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.

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