Sense of Wonder: Cinema's Scaliest Dragons
Last year, to commemorate the theatrical release of LAND OF THE LOST, I started to assemble a list of the Top Ten Greatest Dinosaur Movies, only to find that there were not ten great dinosaur movies in existence; I opted instead for Cinema’s Greatest Dinosaurs. With HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON opening this weekend, I find myself in similar straights, searching vainly for enough worthwhile titles to assemble a Top Ten Retrospective of Best Dragon Movies. Considering the mythical nature of dragons – their awesome size, fearsome appearance, and incredible powers – you would think they would be th superstars of cinefantastique; instead, they have too often been relegated to supporting status, even in films that feature them in the titles. But then, when you see the quality of the films, being kept mostly off-screen may be a blessing.
Fortunately, there are a few good dragon movies out there, and even the dramatic disappointments can feature impressively realized reptiles of mass destruction. Thankfully, we live in the modern world of home video, which allows you to chapter-stop to their scene-stealing highlights, ignoring the defective dramaturgy linking the special effects set-pieces. Here then, not always recommended but always impressive, are Cinema’s Most Memorable Movie Dragons.
Fafnir from SIEGFRIED (1924)
This, one of the earliest movie dragons, appears in the first installment of legendary director Fritz Lang’s two-film series (the second part being KRIMCHILD’S REVENGE). Based on the same mythology that inspired Richard Wagner’s magnum opus, the four-part series of Ring operas, the silent film tells the story of the heroic Siegfried, who among other things slays the dragon. Long before the advent of digital technlogy, Lang’s film relies on a full-size mechanical prop. Although its movement is limited (it’s easy to imagine a dozen men just off screen, pulling and pushing levers and wires), it is impressive in size, and its full scale allows for some nice detail.
The Unnamed Fire-Breather in 7TH VOYAGE OF SINBAD (1957)
The first full-color fantasy extravaganza from Ray Harryhausen, the master of stop-motion animation) features a menagerie of monsters, ranging from a snake-woman to several cyclops, but its most magnificent and memorable creation is the four-legged, fire-breathing dragon that guards the evil sorcerer’s lair. Kept chained for most of the running time, the beast is finally unleashed in the final moments, running rampant and battling one of the one-eyed cyclops creatures. Emerging victorious, it follows Sinbadand their men as they beat a hasty retreat, defending themselves with a giant cross-bow built especially for this dangerous voyage. Of neither the talking nor the flying variety, this dragon is given little chance to show much in the way of personality, but its design is beautiful, and Harryhausen breathes impressive life into its scaly body. In many ways, this is the ultimate screen incarnation of a fairy tale dragon, picture perfect but not too scary for little kids, instead inspriring the Sense of Wonder we hold so dear at Cinefantastique. Harryhausen later animated a somewhat dragon-like Hydra in JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS (1963).
Maleficent in SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959)
Those Grimm Brothers apparently didn’t know how to end a fairy tale, so Walt Disney Pictures came up with their own ending: Maleficent, the evil witch, turns herself into a dragon! Black and regal, even in reptile form, Maleficent is one of the most memorable movie dragons, a fire-breathing terror who gets only gets a few moments of screen time but makes a powerful impression, dwarfing not only the human hero who shares the screen with her but also most of the other dragons who have flown, crawled, and galloped across the screen before or since.
The Two-Headed Dragon in THE MAGIC SWORD (1962)
This fantasy film is a bit of a change of pace for producer-director Bert I. Gordon, a filmmaker, who made his name in the 1950s with sci-fi thrillers about men and/or animals mutated in size by atomic radiation (THE AMAZING COLLASAL MAN). Basil Rathbone, Estelle Winwood, and Gary Lockwood head a fairly high-class cast, wtih Mail Nurmi (a.k.a. Vampira) showing up briefly as a witch. The highlight of the film is the battle between Sir George (Lockwood) and the two-headed dragon controlled by the sorcerer Lodac (Rathbone). The beast is seen only briefly, and its movements are obviously limited, but its look is perfectly suited for the fairy-tale-like story; the design suggests a storybook illustration brought to life, with dagger-like teeth, scaly hide, and large, filly ears.
The Jeweled Dragon in THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM (1962)
This lavishly mounted production from George Pal (WAR OF THE WORLDS) – a fanciful biopic of the men who wrote down many of the world’s most famous fairy tales – features fantasy scenes inspired by several of their tales, including a stand-out sequence with Terry-Thomas and Buddy Hackett trying to rob treasure from a jeweled dragon. The teaming of the comic actors suggests an attempt to capture the feel of a Laurel and Hardy movie, and the action is more funny than frightening. Fortunately, the dragon itself is a nicely done; the scaly, reptilian beas, with its horned head, is well suited to the fairy-tale nature of the story. The stop-motion effects were realized by Project Unlimited (THE OUTER LIMITS), which included Wah Chang, Gene Warren, David Pal, Son Sahlin, and Jim Danforth. A somewhat similar-looking “Loch Ness Monster” would show up in Pal’s 1964 film, THE SEVEN FACES OF DR. LAO.
Vermithrax Pejorative in DRAGONSLAYER (1981)
Ah, yes: the “Worm of Thrace Who Makes Things Worse” (for those of you not up on your Latin, that is the translation of Vermithrax’s name according to the film’s promo materials, although I don’t recall it ever being explained in the film itself). DRAGONSLAYER was a big leap forward in special effects technology, thanks to its use of “go-motion,” an improvement over stop-motion that created motion-blur, making the movements of the animated models smoother and more life-like. Unfortunately, this is a great movie dragon but not a great dragon movie; the film shows precious little of Vermithraxuntil the ending, forcing us to sit through a very long trek with a very inexperienced wizard while enduring a series of ridiculous movie-goofs (like the virgin sacrifice who is obviously tall enough to simply lift her chained hands off the hook holding her in place). When Vermithrax shows up, the film finally comes alive, if only briefly. She’s a magnificently malevolent creature – or is she? Considering what a bunch of idiots the human creatures are, you end up rooting for her, especially after our “hero” callously kills off her babies.
Quetzalcoatl in Q, THE WINGED SERPENT (1982)
Writer-director Larry Cohen’s misguided melding of modern splatter-horror with a Ray Harrhhausen-type mythical creature depicts what happens when the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl is “prayed back into existence” in New York City. Most of the running time follows the police (led by David Carradine) tracking down some crazy-ass Aztec priest who is sacrificing surprisingly willing victims to good ol’d Q, who is usually glimpsed only as a shadow. (The dialoguely lamely tries to convince us that the giant winged dragon evades by seen by “flying into the sun”.) When the monster finally shows up in the final reel, it is a rather disappointing movie dragon; perhaps in an attempt to convey a sleep appearance, the stop-motion puppet lacks interesting surface detail, and the composite shots of the aerial battle are unconvincing in their attempt to match the thrill of 1933’s airplane attack upon KING KONG.
Falkor in THE NEVER ENDING STORY (1984)
This disappointing filmization of Michael Ende’s novel is loaded with elaborate imagery but short of magic and wonder. Still, it features one of the cutest and cuddliest dragons ever seen on film, a “luck dragon” named Falkor. Falkor is fairly unique among cinematic dragons, who tend to be reptilian (when simply scary) with feline traces occasionally mixed in (to make them seem more appealing and pet-like). Falkor is more like a giant puppy dog with floppy ears and furry fury, and he even likes to be scratched behind the ears. Not only that, he flies – without wings! This later attribute, wtih Falkor’s long sinewy body trailing behind him as he takes effortlessly to the air, suggests a resemblance to Oriental dragons, who tended to be slim and serpentine rather than hefty brutes.
Orochi, the eight-headed dragon in YAMATO TAKERU (1994)
Dragon-like creatures appear in numerous Japanese fantasy and science fiction films. Godzilla, although technically a dinosaur mutated by an H-bomb, displays dragon characteristics, such as breathing fire. King Ghidorah, the three-headed monster from outer space, suggests a modern updating of Orochi, the eight-headed dragon of Japanese mythology. Orochi himself has appeared in two films based on the myth, titled YAMATO TAKERU, first in 1959 and again in 1994. The later, filmed at Toho Studios, was the work of filmmakers currently involved with the studios’ Godzilla franchise, so it features special effects and design of similar calibre, with Orochi much resembling Ghidorah. For U.S. home video release, the film was retitled ORICHI, THE EIGHT-HEADED DRAGON.
Draco in DRAGON HEART (1996)
I’m not usually a big fan of “good guy” dragons (or to put it another way, I don’t like my dragons defanged), but Draco is an impressive creation, a wonderful combination of special effects, clever dialogue, and Sean Connery’s voice (in fact, the creature’s facial expressions even match Connery’s). DRAGONHEART is a reasonably well-done dragon movie about a dragon-hunting knight (Dennis Quaid) who has a change of heart when he befriends Draco. The film tries a bit too much to be a crowd-pleaser, with all the rough edges sanded down, making the result a bit more bland than it needs to be; fortunately, it’s still reasonably good fun. After JURASSIC PARK, this was one of the first good uses of computer-generated imagery, showing that the technique could be used to create a creature that was more than just a rampaging reptile – an actual character with (you should pardon the expression) heart. The film later begat a direct-to-video sequel, DRAGONHEART: A NEW BEGINNING.
The Entire Reptilian Cast of DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (2000)
The dragon movie was based on a game, so it is perhaps appropriate the the computer-generated imagery suggests a videogame. Seen in still photos, the dragons don’t look too bad, but the film haphazardly tries to impress us with sheer numbers instead of making the individual creatures memorable. The large-scale scenes underwhelm because all the dragons seem locked into repetitious flight routines.
The Alpha-Male Dragon from REIGN OF FIRE (2002)
The disappointing flick wastes a premise that offers an interesting variation on the old post-apocalyptic scenario: this time, the end of the world as we know it was brought about by dragons. The budget, apparently was too low to show this happening, so we spend of of the time witha small community of survivors, who eventually team up with some warriors and head into London to defeat the scourge. Fortunately for them, there appears to be only one male dragon, so if they can kill him, the species will be doomed to extinction. This Alpha-Male is supposed to be the biggest and most fearsome of all dragons, but his limited screentime prevents him from making a truly strong impression. A few long shots, in CGI, do make him look bigger than the others, but don’t really convey the sheer awe that a world-killer should invoke.
Saphira from ERAGON (2006)
This attempt to create a LORD OF THE RINGS-type dragon movie falls short due to its juveile tone and lackluster storyline, but at least Saphira cuts a somewhat fine figure. She’s not as awesome as Vermithrax, nor does she have the winning personality of Draco, but she does maintain some dignity. Unfortunately, her design incorporates birdlike characteristics (e.g., feathery wings) instead of sticking to the scaly, reptilian look, her dialogue (delivered by telepathy to her rider) suffers from a treacly quality. Thankfully, Rachel Weisz’s soothing vocal tones offer some compensation.
This simple-minded but action-packed dragon movie (shot in Los Angeles with American actors although it is in fact a South Korean production) is short on characterization and common sense, but it features a bevy of serpentine monsters of gargantuan proportions, terrorzing a modern day metropolis with all the “ain’t it cool” devastation that the budget can buy. Whether these creatures are in fact “dragons” is a bit of an open question; if I understand the back story correctly, only one, the good “Imoogi” is a true dragon; the evil Buraki and his brethren (who get most of the screen time) are would-be usurpers who want to attain dragon-status. In any case, when the Imoogi emerges in full form for the climax, he is a wonder to behold, an awesome creature befitting his mythical status, his sinewy flowing appearance a marvelous contrast to the scaly visage of the Buraki. Their climactic duel actually makes the film worth watching.
Queen Narissa in ENCHANTED (2007)
In this fitfully amusing self-spoof from Walt Disney Pictures, the familiar elements of the company’s cartoon fairy tale films are re-imagined in a live action about a young princess who leaves the fantasy land of Andalasia and ends up in modern day New York City. Eventually the evil Queen Narissa puts an end to the romantic-comedy hijinx when she takes a leave from Maleficent’s magic book and turns herself into a dragon and menaces hero and heroine atop the Woolworth Building. Realized with computer-generated digital effects (instead of the old-fashioned hand-drawn animation used to depict Andalasia), is no match for Maleficent in dragon form. She is too colorful and pristine to be a convincingly threatening dragon; to put it bluntly, she looks cute. When she is defeated, it hardly seems a relief or a surprise, as she lacks any real threat, even on the fun-fantasy level for which the film strives.
He goes by the name Jabberwock, but he looks like a dragon to me. ALICE IN WONDERLAND falls far short in the script department, and the climactic confrontation between Alice and the Jabberwock is strictly by the numbers, but the creature himself is wonderfully realized with computer graphics that capture the surreal, fantasy nature of “Underland” while also retaining the beast’s fearsome aspect – and as if all that were not enough, his voice is provided by Christopher Lee. How can you not be terrified by a creature that looks as if it could swallow you whole – and speaks to you in the voice of Saruman, Count Dooku, and Dracula?
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There are many more movie dragons. The scaly creatures slither across the screen in such films as DRAGON WORLD (1994), DRAGON FIGHTER (2002), and GEORGE AND THE DRAGON (2004). Animated films have also presented several dragons, notably the ferocious and fire-breathing Smaug in the tele-film version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE HOBBIT (1977). Smaug is a bit of an exception, as most cartoon dragons tend to be cute and cuddly, as in 1978’s PUFF THE MAGIC DRAGON (inspired by the famous song by Peter, Paul and Mary); the Rankin-Bass production FLIGHT OF THE DRAGONS (1982); QUEST FOR CAMELOT (1998); and Hayao Miyazaki’s SPIRITED AWAY (2001), which features a friendly dragon named Haku.
Walt Disney Pictures has offered several dragons of this sort, starting with THE RELUCTANT DRAGON in 1941 (which is a pseudo-documentary about the animation process, in which real-life author Robert Benchley tries to pitch Walt himself on the idea of making a movie about a shy dragon, and we see Walt screening said movie near the end). Decades later, Disney combined live-action and animation again in PETE’S DRAGON, 1977 film in which the playful dragon Elliott via cell animation instead of more realistic special effects.
In 1998, Eddie Murphy voiced the diminutive dragon Mushu for Disneys MULAN; the character was a fairly typical scence-stealing sidekick, like Robin Williams’ Genie in ALLADIN. Perhaps not coincidentally, in the following decade, Murphy ended up at Disney rival DreamWorks, where he provided the voice not for a dragon but for Donkey, who falls in love with a flighty female dragon in the computer-animated SHREK films (resulting in some extremely odd off-spring).
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON features a zoo-full of different species, most of them colorful and comical, but the lead dragon – named Toothless, and of a species known as Night Fury – is an interesting mix of cute and awesome, like an organic version of a supersonic fighter jet. He rightfully takes his place among the cinema’s most well-realized dragons.
This article has been updated and expanded since initial posting.