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?

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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.

Dragon Wars: D-War (2007) – Fantasy Film Review

A movie does not have to be good to be entertaining. If there were any doubt about the truth of this axiom, along comes DRAGON WARS (subtitled D-WAR on screen), offering up conclusive proof. By no reasonable reckoning can the film be considered a competent piece of cinematic storytelling, yet somehow the movie transcends its silly screenplay with over-the-top action and visually imaginative battles that are good enough to qualify as mindless fun. The result is not high camp in the so-bad-it’s-funny mold of MIGHTY PEKING MAN; this is really more an example of a low-ambition popcorn movie with enough good sequences to compensate for the unintentional laughter.

DRAGON WARS quick-starts with a nice aerial view of a devastated area – the first evidence of dragon activity in a modern day metropolis. The sight of a large reptilian scale leads our hero Ethan (Jason Behr) into an abrupt childhood flashback, when an antique dealer named Jack (Robert Forster) conveniently told him (and by extension the audience) everything necessary to make sense of the plot. This clunky exposition feels like receiving a condensed crash course in Eastern mythology, and you will quickly lose track of the various oddly named entities, whose cosmology seems at least as complex as the choirs of angels in Zoroastrianism (let’s see: cherubim, seraphim, etc.).


Although the young Ethan is clearly perplexed by this deluge of information, Jack never bothers to render it in terms that might be understandable to a boy born in the 20th Century. What it boils down to is this: There is a magical power that will turn a great and worthy serpent into a heavenly dragon, but there is an evil serpent that wants to steal this power. Heaven has hidden this power in a human woman and sent two guardians to protect her (Jack and Ethan), but there is also a marauding army in the service of the evil serpent.
Ethan’s childhood flashback flashes back a further five hundred years to show all of this back story played out in Korea. This sequence captures a beautiful sense of colorful Fant-Asia sword-and-sorcery, a la A CHINESE GHOST STORY, and for awhile it seems as if DRAGON WARS may actually turn out to be good. But then the evil army attacks the peaceful village, and the first major stupid plot points emerges: the two good guys have had twenty years to prepare for this, but when the crisis hits, they seem to be out to lunch, offering little defense until after the village has been thoroughly ravaged. (Why the forces of Good have only two heroes, while the Evil side can muster an entire army, is a question that goes unanswered throughout.)

The evil serpent attacks a Korean village in a flashback set 500 years ago.

Five hundred years later, the events play out again, with the three principal characters having been reincarnated in Los Angeles. Strangely, the two guardians have not learned the lesson of the past; even after five centuries, they are still no better prepared for the attack they know is coming. There seems to be no plan, and the action consists mostly of trying to outrun the threat.
Unfortunately, this approach leads DRAGON WARS straight into one of the worst cliches of cinema: we’re supposed to identify with the lead characters and care what happens to them, but everybody else can just fend for themselves. After Ethan tracks down Sarah (Amanda Brooks), the two of them lead the evil serpent on a merry chase through the streets of Los Angeles, stopping at various houses, restaurants, and office buildings, all of which are promptly destroyed. Yet the couple never for a moment shows any sense of guilt or regret about exposing untold innocent by-standers to the danger that is following them.
We in the audience are not supposed to care about this; we are supposed to sit back and simply enjoy the ride. The movie itself feels little concern about barreling ahead at full-speed regardless of logic. This has some benefits. There is an obligatory scene of a zookeeper put in a straitjacket after describing a giant serpent eating the elephants (you would think the zoo could at lest confirm that the elephants were missing), but the authorities quickly – if not very convincingly – realize the truth of the situation, sparing us the usual “there must be some other explanation” dialogue. Unfortunately, the gambit goes too far, with Anglo FBI officers suddenly up to speed on ancient Korean mythology – there must be a folder on it buried in the X-Files somewhere.
Movies can overcome credibility problems if they offer their audience some sort of emotional bond that will convince them to overlook leaps in logic, but even in that regard DRAGON WARS falls short. Actors Behr and Brooks are given absolutely zero to work with in terms of characterization: there is not a single distinguishing trait between the two of them; they play archetypal romantic leads, who fall in love because the script tells them to, not because there is any chemistry between them. On top of this, Behr’s Nathan is exceedingly lacking as a hero. He does little useful, nothing clever; his one achievement (taking a bullet aimed at Sarah) is undermined when – laughably – he simply stands up immediately afterward and says he’s okay, then resumes the action as if nothing had happened.
In the Merlin role, Forster comes across like a more tangible version of the ghostly Ob-Wan Kenobi. After the early flashback, he pops up at convenient moments to lend assistance, but it is never clear why he does not stick around instead of disappearing like the Lone Ranger without waiting for a thank you (a tactic that elicits laughter in at least one case, when he lurches abruptly off-camera after beating up three guys who were harassing Sarah). There is just barely a hint that the leader of the evil army may have killed Jack, which would explain why he appears and disappears like a ghost; perhaps this is one of the seventeen minutes of footage that was deleted since the 107-minute version screened at the American Film Market last November.
With all this against it, what does DRAGON WARS have to offer? It allows Korean writer-director Hyung-rae Shim to take on Los Angeles like a kid trampling a toy train set. The perennial popularity of disaster flicks and giant monster movies suggests there is a vicarious joy in depicting large-scale destruction on screen, and DRAGON WARS delivers the goods. Regardless of the story deficiencies, the film works on a visual level, thanks to the startling sight of ancient, mythical monsters let loose upon a modern metropolis.

An ancient evil serpent plows through downtown Los Angeles.

All of the genuine imagination went into this aspect of  DRAGON WARS, resulting in some memorable set pieces, such as the serpent’s attack on the U.S. Bank Building – the tallest structure in downtown L.A. Not only does the creature pull a civilian helicopter out of the sky (during a lift-off from the landing pad atop the building); the beast also ends up in the target sights of half a dozen military copters – an expertly choreographed sequence that ranks with the best monster movie action ever filmed. Impressively, the scene never degenerates into a circular firing squad; the choppers believably target the moving serpent while avoiding each other, and the computer-effects footage is brilliantly punctuated with live-action shots of Behr and Brooks huddling beneath the rain of spent shells tumbling down from the sky all around them.
This sequence is just a prologue for the epic battle that follows on the streets of the city below, featuring high-tech modern military equipment clashing with an ancient army of armored warriors mounted on reptilian monsters. The special effects may not be totally convincing, but the juxtaposition of anachronistic imagery sells the sequence spectacularly. And in all fairness, the CGI is no more cartoony-looking than that in most American blockbusters, and the action is at least as well staged as anything in this summer’s TRANSFORMERS.
A sequence like this is hard to top, but DRAGON WARS manages the feat. With the connivance of the useless Ethan (who gets knocked unconscious while trying to drive Sarah to safety), the screenplay gets our heroes into the villains’ lair for the climax, a scene that seems equal parts KING KONG and RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Sarah is tied to an altar, to be sacrificed to the serpent god, but a magic amulet finally sparks to life and zaps a bunch of the bad guys. Finally, the Good Serpent (about whom we have heard so much) makes a belated entry to battle his dark counterpart, and the film leaps to a whole new level of outrageous action when the creature absorbs the magic power that transmogrifies it into a Heavenly Dragon. The snake-like, animalistic appearance is replaced by horns and whiskers suggesting ancient Asian dragons, and the body movement takes on an entirely different characteristic: no longer a belly-crawling serpent, this dragon floats majestically on air.
Of course, the outcome of the confrontation is a foregone conclusion, but these clever visual touches make the scene enchanting as well as thrilling, and there is even a touch of pathos at the end. Against all odds, Behr’s final close-up manages to generate a genuine, emotional response; for at least a moment, you will forget the incredible story and buy into the character. This is as close as the human element ever comes to matching the special effects; it is not enough to redeem the shabby dramaturgy of the rest of the film, but it does send the audience away on a good note. In the end, you must be willing to forgive many egregious flaws in order to enjoy DRAGON WARS, but for sci-fi fans who make the sacrifice, the rewards are worth it.

Jason Behr and Amanda Brooks flee the rampaging serpent
Jason Behr and Amanda Brooks flee the rampaging serpent

TRIVIA

Although a South Korean production, D-WAR (as it was known in its native land) was shot largely in Los Angeles with an American cast. The budge is rumored to be in excess of $75-million, which includes money spent on developing the facilities necessary to produce the elaborate, computer-generated effects in Korea.
Although many reptilian beasts appear in the film, one could argue that only one qualifies as a true dragon – the one that undergoes the metamorphosis at the end.
DRAGON WARS: D-WAR (a.k.a. “D-War,” 2007). Written and directed by Hung-rae Shim. Cast: Jason Behr, Amanda Brooks, Robert Forster, Aimee Garcia, Craig Robinson, Chris Mulkey, John Ales, Elizabeth Pena, Billy Gardell, Holmes Osborne

Copyright 2007 Steve Biodrowski

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Dragon Wars – Hollywood Premiere

An evil serpent destroys the U.S. Bank building - the tallest in Los Angeles

Thanks to the American Cinematheque and Freestyle releasing, Hollywood horror fans got a sneak peak at DRAGON WARS, the Korean produced fantasy film opening Friday. A premiere was held at the venerable Egyptian Theatre, home of the Cinematheque, with many of the cast and crew in attendance: writer-director Hyung-rae Shim and actors Jason Behr, Amanda Brooks, and Robert Forster.
Outside the theatre, the courtyard was filled with paparazzi snapping photos and shooting video of the celebrities, posed in front of a wall of poster art from the Korean-produced film. The usual casual attire seen at Cinematheque screenings was replaced by sleek, black suits and swanky dresses, creating the aura of a genuine event – the people behind this film really seem to think it will do some business.
Inside, Keith Aiken (of scifijapan.com) briefly introduced the film. Two representatives from Freestyle Releasing, the film’s American distributor, made some comments, filling in details about how D-WAR (as it’s known in its native land) managed to earn a wide release stateside. The gist of the tale is that, after the release of THE HOST (which did okay on the art house circuit but did not break out to wide circulation), someone brought a DVD of D-WAR to Freestyle, hoping for a 1,000-theatre opening. Initial skepticism on the part of Freestyle gave way after viewing a sample of the spectacular effects scenes, but what really sold the company was when D-WAR’s debut in Korea earned $20.5-million worth of tickets in its first five days, going on to tally over eight million tickets sold – enough to indicate that the film had the makings of a blockbuster. Consequently, the proposed 1,000 theatre release was expanded to over 2,000.
After the prefatory remarks, DRAGON WARS unspooled for the enthusiastic audience. Without getting into a full-length review here, it became apparent all too soon that the most compelling story about DRAGON WARS is the behind-the-scenes tale of how the Korean film managed to secure a wide release in the U.S. It’s unusual for a foreign production to receive this treatment, but DRAGON WARS is not your typical art house effort. Shot largely in Los Angeles, with English-speaking actors, the film seems deliberately designed to avoid the fate of most foreign hits (e.g., RING, JU-ON): that is, having the remake rights sold while the original is shunted off to video. DRAGON WARS is obviously intended as an American-style blockbuster; unfortunately, the film suffers from the flaws that mar American spectacles: the story is weak when it’s not outright silly; there is little if any attention lavished on the characters and performances; and all the real imagination seems to have been devoted to the special effects.



The good news is that, despite the dramatic weaknesses and gaping plot holes (no doubt due to removing fifteen minutes to speed up the pace of the U.S. cut), DRAGON WARS works because it delivers spectacular monster action. The special effects set pieces are brilliantly conceived and executed; it not utterly convincing, they are less cartoony than similar footage in many American films, and there is an impressive attempt at using light and shadow to make the beast seem truly like a part of the environment.
The audience ate it up, delivering ringing rounds of applause, and actor Robert Forster, who was sitting across the aisle from me, expressed his enthusiastic endorsement. (Despite his short screen-time and a conflict with a current acting gig, he had made a special effort to attend the screening.)
At the reception afterwards, most of the comments were positive, although the flaws did not go unnoticed. The general consensus was that DRAGON WARS is front-loaded with complex exposition that might not be clear to American viewers, and some of the big dramatic moments might have more resonance with Korean viewers (as when a mystical talisman, at a crucial moment, comes to life with a powerful, glowing burst of energy that saves the hero). I eagerly championed this theory, based on the evidence of two Korean gentlemen who had been sitting beside me during the screening: they had gasped in awe-struck simultaneous whispers recognition at each such juncture as we were describing: “OHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!” I remembered feeling vaguely jealous that they were obviously getting more of the film than I was.
Of course, premiere audience reactions, with the filmmakers – and their friends and family – in attendance, can be misleading. It will be interesting to see how DRAGON WARS goes down with a general audience, but it does have the potential to be a sleeper hit with audiences eager for more TRANSFORMERS-type battle action in the streets of a major city. And we all know that the rest of the country – jealous of Los Angeles because we have the film industry, good weather, beaches filled with beautiful women – are probably eager to see the town destroyed by rampaging reptiles.
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