Alice in Wonderland: Blu-ray Review

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When released earlier this year, ALICE IN WONDERLAND immediately revealed itself as one of Tim Burton’s lesser projects. Burton is a great talent who alternates between more ambitious and personal projects that he develops to suit his own unique tastes (A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS) and big-budget studio blockbusters, which hopefully earn enough cash to induce Hollywood to keep indulging him on his less commercial projects.  Unfortunately, the studio-originated films tend to be  action flicks (like PLANET OF THE APES and this one); and rather like another eccentric visual stylist – the late, great Mario Bava – Burton has proven time and again that his forte does not lie in directing action set-pieces.
The Tim Burton sensibility is a perfect match for bringing Lewis Carroll to life; unfortunately, when the screenplay gets around to creating a story to take place in this world, it becomes awkward and dull, delivering exposition in a big information dump – a disappointing development, considering that screenwriter  Linda Woolverton previously scripted Walt Disney’s high-water mark in traditional animation, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1990). Although giving full bloom to Burton’s visual aesthetic, ALICE IN WONDERLAND ultimately opts for layering Lewis Carroll’s source material with an out-sized tea-kettle full of generic fantasy-action heroics that seemed lifted from the Harry Potter films and/or THE LORD OF THE RINGS. It is as if some nervous studio exec at Walt Disney Pictures realized that the original material would be great draw for little girls but but decided that soldiers, swords, and dragon-slaying were necessary to draw in the boys.
Alice in Wonderland (2010)This would not have been so bad, if Woolverton’s screenplay had been able to integrate the required elements, but they feel awkwardly shoe-horned into a narrative that can ill support them, leading to a generic, predictable quality lacking in much-needed surprises. Rather cleverly, the scenario suggests we are seeing a sequel to the familiar story, beginning with a prelude, set in the real world, which depicts the young Alice haunted by recurring nightmares of Wonderland; years later, Alice, now a young adult (Mia Wasikowska), is maneuvered into  an arranged marriage with an upper-class twit obviously wrong for a young woman of her unorthodox sensibility. This sequence has a nice Jane Austen feel that contrasts nicely with the later fantasy land stuff; it’s all about social conventions and marrying well. Will Alice do what is expected of her by her family and society, or will she rebel?
Alice in Wonderland (2010)Opting for flight over fight, Alice ends up down the rabbit hole again, finding herself in Wonderland – which, we are told, is actually called “Underland” by its inhabitants. Here, Alice once again finds herself expected to act in a certain way – in this case, to be a champion who will slay Jabberwock, a terrifying creature that keeps the Underland populace from rising up against the tyrannical Red Queen (Helana Bonham Carter, giving it her all).
ALICE IN WONDERLAND presents a direct parallel between the two sets of expectations that Alice faces, suggesting that she will defy them in the fantasy world as well as in the real world. Instead, the story builds to her doing the predicted thing, which seems to be a terrible miscalculation in terms of Alice’s character arc. The script tries to justify this by suggesting that Alice is learning to do the impossible (i.e, contravene conventions and take her own path), but it is too clear from the beginning that Alice considers herself (thanks to her late father’s tutelage) a defier of convention.
Flanked by the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), Alice (Mia Waskikowska) suits up to slay the Jabberwock.
Flanked by the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), Alice (Mia Waskikowska) suits up to slay the Jabberwock.

What the script really needed was to give us an Alice a little less sure of herself (currently, her only doubts are about the reality of Underland, which she initially dismisses as a dream), and once in Wonderland, the inhabitants should have paralleled their real-world counterparts more closely, by telling Alice that she cannot possibly be the champion who will slay the Jabberwock – that way, she could defy convention by proving them wrong, instead of in the end reluctantly accepting the role forced on her by circumstance.
Burton is renowned as a visual director, but that renown tends to miss the mark, praising him for form over content, when his real strength is the ability to create worlds in which the strange scenarios make sense or at least seem appropriate. That is certainly true for ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Realized with stunning computer-generated imagery (which extends not only to creatures and characters but also to the vast majority of the settings), Underland is an on-screen marvel well worth visiting. Though not totally convincing, the stylized unreality is perfectly appropriate for Wonderland, setting the perfect tone of the fantasyland. (The one exception is the Red Queen’s over-sized head, which is too ghastly to be enjoyable viewing.)
The Cheshire Cat
The Cheshire Cat

Not only is ALICE IN WONDERLAND technically beautiful. In spite of its fantasy accouterments, Underland feels real, or at least believable; across the board, the actor’s performances are pitched at the right level, one that makes sense in the context of the imaginative landscape in which the story takes place. The most perfectly realized character, in terms of design, effects, and performance, is the wonderful Cheshire Cat, whose smooth voice (by Stephen Fry) echoes the visual grace with which the cat glides, floats and disappears – some of the most splendid computer-animation ever seen.
In a film where Wasikowska is more or less the straight-man (excuse me, straight-person) role, the rest of the cast vies for eccentricity. This they manage to do without becoming overbearing, but of course the battle is lost before it begins, thanks to the presence of Johnny Depp and Crispin Glover, actors whose penchant for the unusual is perfectly suited to their characters (the Mad Hatter and the Knave of Hearts, respectively). Too bad the film could not be bothered to do something more interesting with this potentially wonderful on-screen pairing; the two share little screen time, which is mostly wasted in a generic scuffle or two, instead of a challenge to see who can one-up the other in terms of whacked-out zaniness.
Depp as the Mad Hatter
Depp as the Mad Hatter

Speaking of generic scuffles, there is a brief moment when the Mad Hatter, confronted by the Red Queen’s minions, defends himself by hurling rollers of silent fabric at the advancing soldiers. For a brief moment, ALICE IN WONDERLAND feels on the edge of breaking out of its generic rut and leaping to the next level of Fant-Asia style fight choreography, in which the graceful flow silken robes, colorful ribbons, and intricate tapestry are as important as (an in fact, sometimes replace) the swish of  sword. This was the kind of action exuberance that was needed to match the amazement level of the production and character design.
Too bad it’s a false alarm, and the film settles back into generic action mode, climaxing with an unconvincing confrontation between Alice and the Jabberwocky, which ends with a would-be Schwarzenegger-style bon mot. “Off with your head” is no match for “Hasta la vista, baby.” Worse, it makes no sense when delivered to the Jabberwock; it could only work if said to the Red Queen (whose signature line it is). There certainly would have been some satisfaction in seeing that awful, bulbous head severed from its mis-sized body. But that would have been a bit too horrible for a family-friendly fantasy film. As with much of the film, it’s another sign of good potential squandered.

BLU-RAY DETAILS

Walt Dinsey Home Video’s Blu-ray disc of ALICE IN WONDERLAND offers a beautiful 1.78 transfer that perfectly captures the surreal beauty of Underland. There are language and subtitle options for English (for the hearing impaired), French, and Spanish. The bonus features are divided into two categories: “Wonderland Characters” and “Making Wonderland,” each of which includes multiple chapters featuring interviews with the cast and crew.
“Wonderland Characters” includes these brief chapters:

  • Finding Alice
  • The Mad Hatter
  • The Futterwacken Dance
  • The Red Queen
  • Time-lapse: Sculpting the Red Queen
  • The White Queen

Alice in Wonderland (2010): Helana Bonham Carter as the Red QueenThe interviews contained therein are about what one would expect from traditional promotional previews, but the behind-scenes-footage of the actors cavorting about on green-screen stages (onto which Underland was later added by the special effects artists) is worth seeing on its own, providing a stunning glimpse of the extent to which ALICE IN WONDERLAND was created in the computer, despite the presence of live actors. The time-lapse application of the Red Queen’s makeup is interesting to watch, and it is surprising to learn that the Mad Hatter’s triumphant Futterwacken Dance was not a creation of CGI; it was performed by a dance double, whom the filmmakers had discovered on YouTube.
The “Making Wonderland” chapters include:

  • Scoring Wonderland
  • Effecting Wonderland
  • Stunts of Wonderland
  • Making the Proper Size
  • Cakes of Wonderland
  • Tea Party Props

Alice in Wonderland (2010): Crispen Glover as the Knave of HeartsThese chapters get a bit more into behind-the-scenes details of interest to fans with a yearning to learn the processes of film-making. Danny Elfman is a particularly good interview in “Scoring Wonderland.” As informative as the pieces are, some obvious questions are left unanswered, such as why some of the Underland cast (e.g., Helena Bonham Carter) wore actual costumes, while most of characters (such as Crispen Glover’s Knave of Hearts) were shot with the actors in green motion-capture leotards, onto which computer-generated costumes were added later. For those less interested in technical details, the “Cakes of Wonderland” is an amusing look at a pair of bakers hired to provided actual edible cakes scaled to different sizes, depending on how large or small Alice happens to be in each scene.
The Blu-ray disc is also BD-live enabled, allowing Internet access to additional features.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND (theatrical: March 5, 2010; home video: June 1, 2010). Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by Linda Woolverton, based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Rated PG. Cast: Johnny Dep, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse, Timothy Spall, Marton Csokas, Tim Pigott-Smith, Michael Gough, Christopher Lee.
Alice in Wonderland (2010): Anne Hathaway as the White Queen Alice in Wonderland (2010): The Cheshire Cat Alice in Wonderland (2010)
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Laserblast – June 1 Home Video Releases: Alice in Wonderland and The Wolfman

Apparently Hollywood has cast some spell that blasted open the doors to their vaults, unleashing a blood-thirsty horde of horror, fantasy, and science fiction titles that are winging their way into video stores this June 1. Not only do we get two major theatrical releases (THE WOLF MAN and ALICE IN WONDERLAND); we also get a cauldron-full of older titles back on Blu-ray and direct-to-video flicks, plus a diabolical dozen (and then some) double-disc releases. It’s more cinefantastique than you can hold at bay with all your garlic and crosses, but don’t fear – we’re here to warn you away from the worst and direct you toward the best.

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ALICE IN WONDERLAND is sadly disappointing – one of director Tim Burton’s blockbuster entertainments that suffocates under its own weirdness. It’s visually interesting, to some degree, but dramatically dull and listless. It arrives on DVD, Blu-ray, and a 3-disc combo set that includes both of the previous discs, plus a third disc offering a digital copy for your computer. Bonus features include:

  • Finding Alice
  • The Mad Hatter
  • Effecting Wonderland
  • The Futterwacken Dance (Blu-ray only)
  • The Red Queen (Blu-ray only)
  • Time-Lapse: Sculpting the Red Queen (Blu-ray only)
  • The White Queen: an interview with Anne Hathaway
  • Scoring Wonderland: Composer Danny Elfman and Tim Burton discuss the music (Blu-ray only)
  • Stunts of Wonderland (Blu-ray only)
  • Making the Proper Size (Blu-ray only)
  • Cakes of Wonderland (Blu-ray only)
  • Tea Party Props (Blu-ray only)

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THE WOLF MAN was likewise disappointing, but at least its home video release offers the promise of an unrated director’s cut, which supposedly restores essential elements of the story. This turns out not to be the case; the longer cut is simply longer, not really much better. Both the DVD and the Blu-ray include this cut and the original theatrical version. Unfortunately, the DVD offers only a series of 5 deleted or extended scenes as a bonus feature; if you want any of the behind-the-scenes featurettes about the makeup and special effects, you have to purchase the Blu-ray.
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So much for the big guns. What else is out there? Two new direct-to-video titles make their debut, CORNERED and TIME COP 2. The later stars the great Jason Scott Lee (DRAGON: THE BRUCE LEE STORY), who really deserves to be in something better. There is also something called “Jackie Chan Presents GEN-Y COPS,” a 2000 Hong Kong action flick about terrorists who abduct a “deadly lethal attack robot.” And interesting for its title if nothing else is EASTER BUNNY, KILL! KILL – a 2006 indie effort that showed up at some film festivals and made its VOD debut this April; now you can see it on DVD.
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Steven Spielberg’s 2005 version of WAR OF THE WORLDS arrives in a new Blu-ray presentation, as does the Kevin Costner vehicle DRAGONFLY. Other oldies surfacing from the crypt include John Carpenter’s VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, GHOST DAD with Bill Cosby, Clint Eastwood’s FIREFOX (a full dub Ac3 Dol Ecoa repackaging), and THE HITCHER II: I’VE BEEN WAITING, which is actually a sequel not to the recent Platinum Dunes remake but to the 1986 version of THE HITCHER, with C. Thomass Howell reprising his role, this time in opposition to Jake Busey (who may or may not be the Hitcher played by Rutger Hauer the first time around). Right about now, most of you are probably asking yourself, “They made a sequel to THE HITCHER? When?”
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For some reason, Tuesday, June 1 sees a deluge of double bill DVDs. Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has created a label titled “Dreadtime Stories Double Feature,” which offers up four installments this week. The most high-profile is the pairing of HOLLOW MAN (the execrable Paul Verhoeven variation on the invisible man) with FLATLINERS (Joel Schumacher’s execrable attempt to make a sophisticated supernatural thriller about the near-death experience). Also on the Dreadtime Stories menu are double bills of CANDY with THE SHE CREATURE, THE WOODS with THE CRAFT, and RING AROUND THE ROSIE with DEATH TUNNEL.
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Is that all the double bills for this week? Not by a long shot! Several previously released single-disc DVDs have been packaged together at discount prices (two for the price of one-and-a-half), providing double bills of SILENT HILL with ULTRAVIOLET, BRAM STOKERS’ DRACULA with THE GRUDGE, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND with STARMAN, I KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER with I STILL KNOW WHAT YOU DID LAST SUMMER, THE NET with JOHNNY MNEMONIC, and several others. And if two films are not enough for you, there’s the ULTIMATE 6-MOVIE SCI-FI MARATHON featuring “Androids, Aliens & the Fountain of Youth.” Included are such memorable titles as THE ANDROID AFFAIR and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE II.
Believe it or not, this merely scratches the surface. All told, over 35 horror, fantasy, and science fiction titles are being released on DVD or Blu-ray this week. You can find them all in the Cinefantastique Online Store.

Malice in Wonderland theatrical playdate

Malice in Wonderland (2009)Magnet Releasing – the genre arm of Magnolia Pictures – has decided to put this updating of Alice In Wonderland in theatres [*See update below.]  for a limited platform release before its arrival on home video in May. Simon Fellows directed from a screenplay by Jayson Rothwell. Maggie Grace plays the modern Alice, who is knocked down by a London cab and wakes up in a version of Wonderland that looks suspiciously like contemporary London, with human characters like “Whitey” standing in for the familiar White Rabbit, and so forth. Danny Dyer, Matt King, and Nathaniel Parker fill out the cast. The theatrical distribution seems like a last-minute decision to cash in on Tim Burton’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND, with little promotional push besides releasing the trail on Apple’s iTunes. Release date: April 16.
*UPDATE: Magnet Releasing’s use of the plural form “theatres” may be an exaggeration. Only a single theatre is screening the film: the Reading Cinemas Gas Lamp 15 in San Diego.
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Sense of Wonder: Cinema's Scaliest Dragons

Toothless the Dragon takes flight in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON
Toothless the Dragon takes flight in HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON

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)

Terry-Thomas and Buddy Hackett menaced by the jeweled dragon
Terry-Thomas and Buddy Hackett menaced by the jeweled dragon

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)

David Carradines police detective is surprised by the unexpected appearance of an Aztec god in New York City.
David Carradine's police detective is surprised by the unexpected appearance of an Aztec god in New York City.

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)

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)

Orochi the Eight-Headed Dragon

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.

The Imoogi in DRAGON WARS (2007)

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.

The Jabberwock in ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)

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?

* * * * *

Chihiro and the dragon Haku
Chihiro and the dragon Haku in SPIRITED AWAY

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.
Mushu (voice by Eddie Murphy) in MULAN
Mushu (voice by Eddie Murphy) in MULAN

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.

Laserblast, March 30: Sherlock Holmes, Alice In Wonderland, I Sell the Dead

SHERLOCK HOLMES is the big genre film laserblasting its way into video stores on March 30. Although the genres in this case are primarily mystery and action-adventure, the film follows in the tradition of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, flirting with an allegedly supernatural villain who claims he will return to life after being executed. The trailers made this one seem like a buddy movie, emphasizing raucous rowdiness over ratiocination, yet enough of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s concept for the great sleuth survives to make this one worthwhile for Holmes fans. You can now check it out on DVD and in a combo pack containing a Blu-ray disc, a DVD, anda digital copy for your computer/iPod.
The other theatrical release making its home video debut is I SELL THE DEAD, which appeared in a handful of art house engagements last year. This episodic horror-comedy doesn’t quite hold together for its entire length, but it is a good-natured throwback to the old-fashioned, atmospheric approach, with echoes of Universal and Hammer, mixed with enough modern mayhem to create an amusing off-kilter vibe. Now on DVD and Blu-ray.
Arriving a bit late to cash in on the theatrical release  of the live-action Tim Burton film, ALICE IN WONDERLAND re-emerges from the Disney vaults, this time in a 2-disc special “un-anniversary edition.” Although well loved, this is not necessarily Disney animation at its finest. Still the brand-new bonus features should be worth checking out.
VAMPYRES is a ’70s Euro-trash item about lesbian vampires that promises “chilling atmosphere, shocking bloodshed, and…torrid sexuality.” Somehow, I doubt it will be as found as it sounds.
So obscure it doesn’t even qualify as a cult film is GIRLY (shortened in America from the British original: MUMSY, NANNY, SONNY, AND GIRLY). The title sounds like a sexploitation, and the marketing suggests horror, but this is really a quirky black comedy about a brother and sister who lure men back to their home, where adults Mumsy and Nanny cluck with approval over their “games,” which have lethal consequences for their guests. Director Freddy Francis (who helmed some enjoyable horror films for Hammer and Amicus in the ’60s and ’70s) considered this one of his best efforts, but it’s hard to see why. Although initially intriguing, the eccentric English humor goes only so far toward sustaining interest, and the plot (vaguely similar to THE BEGUILED with Clint Eastwood) needs stronger characters or more engaging performances to prop it up.

Alice's Wonderful Box Office

It was a great weekend for horror, fantasy, and science fiction, as ALICE IN WONDERLAND scored an easy victory at the box office this weekend, earning more than the rest of the Top Ten releases combined. The fantasy film, directed by Tim Burton and starring Johnny Depp, sold over $116-million in tickets while playing in over 3, 700 theatres.
Last week”s #1 film, SHUTTER ISLAND, dipped to third place, behind BROOKLYN’S FINEST. The ominous Gothic thriller SHUTTER added $13-million to its $95-million total, making it one of the biggest hits of director Martin Scorsese’s career.
AVATAR slipeed from fourth to fifth place with $7.7-million, adding up to a $720-million total.
THE CRAZIES fared less well: after its third-place debut last weekend, it feLl to #6 with $7-million, yielding a two-week total of $27-million.
The adolescent-themed PERCY JACKSON  & THE OLYMPIANS: THE LIGHTNING THIEF landed in 5th place, down two slots, with $5-million, for a $78-million total.
Dropping out of the Top Ten were TOOTH FAIRY with $2.8-million ($56-million total) and THE WOLF MAN with $1.6-million ($60-million total).

Read the complete Top Ten here.

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Cybersurfing: Tim Burton follows Alice into Wonderland

Business Week offers a profile of Tim Burton regarding his new film ALICE IN WONDERLAND, for Disney. The article specifically notes the irony of the director’s return to the Mouse House, with which he has had a decidedly on again and off again relationship:

“Alice in Wonderland” marks Burton’s latest reunion with Walt Disney Studios, where he started his career as an animator 30 years ago.
“It’s the weirdest thing, but it’s true. I didn’t really realize it, but I go, I do, I get kicked out, and I go, and I do, I get kicked out. I think this is the third or fourth or fifth time that’s happened,” Burton, 51, said in an interview.

The article also briefly mentions Burton’s upcoming efforts, a feature version of DARK SHADOWS, starring Johnny Depp (presumably as Barnabas Collins, the sympathetic vampire previously played on television by Jonathan Frid and Ben Cross) and a feature-length, stop-motion rendition of his early Disney short subject, FRANKENWEENIE.

Alice in Wonderland trailer

Directed by Tim Burton, the new live-action version of ALICE IN WONDERLAND is less remake than sequel, offering up a 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) on the verge of marriage, who remembers her previous journey to Wonderland only as a recurring nightmare that has haunted her since childhood. The supporting cast includes Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, Helana Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, Crispin Glover as the Knave of Hearts, and Anne Hathaway as the White Queen. Additionally, a cast of familiar British voices provide dialogue for the computer-generated fantasy creatures: Alan Rickman as the Blue Caterpillar, Timothy Spall as Bayard the hound, Michael Gough as the Dodo Bird, and Christopher Lee as the Beowulf. Linda Wolverton (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) wrote the screenplay, which takes considerable liberties with the source novels by Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass.
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