This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
This review contains spoilers.
There are lots of familiar elements in The Last Dragonslayer, Sky’s big Christmas Day family fantasy adventure based on the first of a series of books from Jasper Fforde. Familiar can be really good. Christmas itself is about the familiar. Very few people want a change from a load of wrapped presents, a big meal, and an entertaining offering on television to round off the day.
Saying that, exactly what we want on our plate, within the wrapping, and on our television screens on Christmas Day can differ every time. The Last Dragonslayer might, at first glance, look like it’s offering something that’s getting a bit too familiar. For instance, it’s a story about an orphan who lives in a magical world that’s in peril, and that orphan is going to turn out to be the key to saving that world. There’s a cast of well-known faces to British TV, and there’s a quest, and a magic sword, and a dragon that’s voiced by somebody famous (in this case, Richard E. Grant). These facets are all a mix of the standard elements to fantasy writing, and to the big seasonal production.
But watching it proved to me that there’s a lot of variation still possible within those set parameters, and quite early on this fantasy adventure changed from being something I’d happily doze off to after my roast dinner to something I wanted to stay awake for. A lot of that is due to its sense of humour. It really made me laugh, because of performances, the one-liners, and the world in which it was set.
Yes, I absolutely loved the world in particular – the Ununited Kingdom, a version of Britain in which Herefordshire has its own King, and magic jostles up against capitalism. There’s no pretence here that magic doesn’t exist; instead there’s simply no respect for it. The magic is weakening anyway – could that be connected to the fact that there’s only one dragon left, flying about in the tract of land that separates it from people? Many citizens would much rather the dragon got bumped off, and magic faded entirely. Then the dragon lands could be snapped up and transformed into housing estates and supermarkets. Everyone’s refusal to see wonder in the presence of dragons and magic feels very amusing, and also a bit painfully recognisable in the way we treat the wonders of nature that surround us. There’s a brilliant moment where King Snodd (played by the incredibly engaging Matt Berry) explains that “marketing is the new magic” because it can make people choose one product over another. Isn’t that incredible?! You laugh, but you also want to cry a bit.
Right in the middle of this strange battle between two ways of life is Jennifer Strange, an orphan who is taken into indentured servitude by a magician called The Great Zambini (a really warm performance from Andrew Buchan). She has no magical powers herself, but when Zambini disappears, she discovers that since her birth she has been destined to become the Last Dragonslayer. This role comes with a magic sword, an assistant, and the ability to enter the dragon’s lands. It also comes with advertising contracts and a lot of pressure.
Jennifer’s dilemma over whether she should accept what appears to be her destiny as a dragonslayer took up a good portion of the running time, and it’s a good thing that she was played by Ellise Chappell, who has a measured, calm quality that manages to ground the drama in the midst of its madness. The first ten minutes or so in particular felt rushed and frenetic, as we zipped through Jennifer’s adoption and young years at breakneck speed. It’s a difficult task to turn an entire novel into a piece of entertainment to be digested at one sitting (I couldn’t even explain the initial set-up in less than two paragraphs), and in order to achieve it here there’s really no time spent over our introduction to theUnunitedKingdom.
At first this approach didn’t work for me. The opening felt too fast, too piecemeal. We zipped through Jennifer’s adoption and her growing love for the father figure of Zambini. It seemed that the two older magicians Jennifer lived with, played by Pauline Collins and Ricky Tomlinson, might just be there for window-dressing. But then, with everything set up and ready to go, the pace slowed just enough for us to start to engage with the story, and to also pick out some great magical details along the way, such as self-replenishing biscuit tins and flying rabbits. And then there was emotional depth, made by really good actors working with only a few lines and facial expressions. Pauline Collins in particular as Lady Mawgon was both fun and frosty with such a warm heart lurking underneath – a wonderful character performance.
So the plot twisted and turned, and so did Jennifer on the horns of her dilemma – should she give in to her fate and end the presence of magic in the kingdom? Of course, nothing was so straightforward. But the resolution was a surprise and it also contained some real loss and sadness, which caught me unawares. Basically, it delivered nearly everything I wanted from it.
I say nearly, because it turns out that this is the start of a series of television adventures for Jennifer Strange, and so that meant a little bit of a cliffhanger was considered necessary, and stopped me from feeling fully satisfied about it all. Also, it hinted at more to do for the President of StuffCo, the supermarket chain; played by Anna Chancellor, she had very little to do first-hand in this adventure. Did she seem like a scary adversary? Not for a girl who’s just taken on the might of the King and won out. Perhaps that’s just another aspect that didn’t have time to be properly explored here. It’s possible that this kind of frenetic pace suits a younger audience more (Jasper Fforde said of it, “I have an awful lot of children. So it’s mostly at their kind of speed.”) but I could have wished for a few elements to have a bit more breathing space at times, particularly if this is a set-up for further trips to the Kingdom.
So I’d say The Last Dragonslayer was a great choice for Christmas Day TV watching, delivering the expected type of family adventure, but excelling in performance and setting, and in sense of humour. Even if the beginning and end weren’t quite so successful in terms of pacing for me, I’m glad it hit its stride in the central section, and produced something magical. It could easily become a very familiar part of my Christmas.