Was Dragonslayer really a Disney film?

Rob takes a look at a surprising movie from the 1980s that was not really ‘house of mouse’ material...

Disney's Dragonslayer

Over its 75 year history Disney has produced some of the best loved animated films ever. From Snow White to the up and coming Frog Princess their films have captured the hearts of kids and adults alike, mostly aimed for the demographic of family entertainment. However lurking in their extensive archive are a few movies that are very un-Disney; films that don’t really have you wishing on a star but rather wishing things would stop, as it’s scaring the kids.

It seemed that the early 1980s was a time were Disney was experimenting with diversifying their content and material, and as a result there was some really innovative and boundary-pushing as far as ideas and concepts were concerned.

As mentioned a few articles ago, one of these was the animated feature of The Black Cauldron. this fantasy animation takes a little of Ralph Bashi’s animated Lord of the Rings and mixes it with some the dark fantasy novels of the time. Even though there is an attempt to lighten things up with a pig and ‘comedy’ sidekick, the tone was steadfastly dark – and, according to the initial script, things would have been a lot more creepy if things had all gone to plan. 

It was not just Disney’s animated content that went down the darker path, but the live-action film output also took as nastier turn. From the adult-oriented Tron to the fear inducing Watcher in the Woods, Disney seemed to aim for a whole new market. However probably the most un-Disney Disney film is 1982’s Dragonslayer, a film that used the craggy peaks of Wales to full advantage in a movie that broke the mould of Disney’s family-aimed fare.

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To cash in on the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons and role-playing, this live-action fantasy flick is probably one of the best fantasy films of the time; however in no way is it a Disney film. Noted by fans of the fantasy genre as having probably the best dragon ever to appear on film, courtesy of Phil Tippet and his recently-invented ‘go-mo’ stop motion technique, the film starred Peter McNicol (of Ghostbusters and Ally McBeal fame) and Ralph Richardson as a sorcerer and apprentice whose quest took them into battle with a monster in the dark ages. 

Whereas the film could have gone for a happy, smiley and very Disney-like ‘quest’ film, with songs, comedy sidekicks and a light-hearted tone, it borrowed from the darker quest of The Hobbit, mixed it with the St. George myths, added a hint of Excalibur and a bit of Anne McCaffery and produced a film that is everything that recent dragon flick Eragon wasn’t, namely a work that was dark, brooding and actually very good. This really is a teen or adult-aimed fantasy film, filled as it is with virgin sacrifices, people burned alive, cross-dressing and a dirty, gritty realm in which the malevolent dragon Vermithrax Pejorative rules supreme and terrifies the population of Urland. 

Whether it’s the grim and dark story or the bad guys of the piece, especially the nasty Tyrian or the slaughter of the pilgrims preaching the new religion of Christianity, this really is far more a dark age horror movie than a kid’s film. Even the religious overtones, with the villagers praising God with the victory over the Dragon and the King who takes credit for the ‘kill’ himself, this is so far removed from standard Disney formula that it’s almost beyond belief that the house of mouse commissioned it; baby dragons killed, people impaled through trees with lance-like swords and dark magic mixed up together in this a movie that bemused the critics and turned away kids. 

On reflection Dragonslayer is an excellent film, but too wordy and grim for the kids. Disney took a huge gamble which ultimately did not pay off at the time, but is now seen as a great but wrongly-targeted movie oddity.