Maleficent – Spotlight Podcast 5:21

Angelina Jolie as Maleficent
Angelina Jolie as Maleficent

Angelina Jolie is marvelously wicked in Walt Disney Pictures’ live-action MALEFICENT, but is the film’s attempt to de-villain-ize its villainess a success or a failure? Check out this (belated) installment of the Cinefantastique Spotlight Podcast to find out. Lawrence French and Steve Biodrowski debate the wisdom or retro-fitting classic tales with updated elements that may not fit.


[serialposts]

Maleficent review

Maleficent (2014) horizontal art

The goofiest filmed version of classic literature since THE SCARLET LETTER was “freely adapted” from Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1995 attempts to gene-splice a new WICKED-esque back story with the familiar elements of Disney’s SLEEPING BEAUTY, resulting in a cluttered feature film whose pieces fit with all the symmetry of two separate puzzles mixed randomly together.

Since she is not malefic, why is she named Maleficent?

The question may seem pedantic, but truly it is symptomatic of everything wrong with MALEFICENT, the live-action prequel-remake of Walt Disney Pictures’ classic animated film SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959). While trying to contort the narrative into a WICKED-esque apologia for its not so villainous villainess, the new film shoe-horns in elements from its source (itself based on tales by Charles Perrault and the Brothers Grimm) with the enthusiasm of a reluctant young host inviting unwanted older relatives simply because they’re expected, regardless of whether or not they fit in. Meanwhile, the new story line stumbles along, occasionally colliding with the older bits, feigning familiarity but really rushing to get away as soon as possible. Thus, we get not only the eponymous character’s inappropriate name, but also a useless trio of fairy godmothers, an ineffectual fire-breathing dragon, and a pathetic prince, who rides in just long enough to make you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered. Add it all up and you have the goofiest adaptation of classic literature since THE SCARLET LETTER (1995) was “freely adapted” from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel by Demi Moore and company.
In this version, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) is not so much a malefactor as a victim, beginning life as an innocent fairy living peacefully in her fairy wonderland. She has the ill luck to become enamored of Stefan (Sharlto Copley), a young human with royal ambitions. Years later, Stefan ascends to the throne by pretending to complete a task assigned by the former king: killing Maleficent. (Actually, he drugs her and clips her wings, which he brings back as “proof” of her death.) Betrayed and outraged, Maleficent turns to the dark side, dragging her kingdom with her, whether they like it or not (a story element glossed over completely). She shows up uninvited at the party celebrating the birth of Stefan’s child Aurora, bestowing the expected curse that will send the young princess into a death-like sleep when she pricks her finger on a spinning wheel sometime before her sixteenth birthday.
However, instead of fast-forwarding to the fateful day, MALEFICENT treads water for what seems like sixteen years, with the title character keeping an eye on Princess Aurora (now played by Elle Fanning) for no particular reason other than idle interest. The film makes it immediately clear that the three fairy godmothers charged with protecting Aurora are incompetent nitwits, and the princess would have died many times over if not for Maleficent surreptitious intervention. In other words, as we move into the second act of the story, Maleficent has gone from Good to Evil back to Good again, though she retains the trappings of “Evil” in a belabored attempt to pretend that there is some kind of third-act redemption she needs to achieve.
With the character arc obviously completed (at least to anyone still awake after the terrifically boring back story that has been unnecessarily inflated to fill the first act), there is nothing left to do but go through the motions, which become increasingly arbitrary and eventually nonsensical. To sight the obvious: King Stefan has all the spinning wheels in his kingdom burned, but he leaves the remnants in a room in his castle, ignoring the obvious fact that his daughter is fated to prick her hand on a needle – which is made of mettle and therefore not flammable. You almost wonder whether he is unconsciously colluding with his nemesis; instead, it’s just bad screenwriting.
maleficent_dragon2Even more awkward: Maleficent is unstoppably all powerful, but the film pretends she is not, just long enough to stretch the story to feature length, then admits the obvious during the climax, when she easily defeats Stefan (with an assist from her pet raven-turned-human-turned-dragon, who shows up just because this is after all a remake of SLEEPING BEAUTY so we have to get the dragon in there somehow). Which leaves us wondering: Why didn’t she simply get even with Stefan immediately after he clipped her wings? Why make her own kingdom suffer? Why curse Aurora – an innocent victim – instead of gong after the true culprit? With its (allegedly anti-) heroine being drugged and violated, MALEFICENT might be read as a metaphor for date rape, with everything that follows a cathartic revenge fantasy, but that reading hardly works if Malifcent’s focus shifts from Stefan to Aurora – another example of the “Sleeping Beauty” story elements awkwardly interfering with the attempt to re-imagine the famous villainess as a Wronged Woman rather than Evil Incarnate.
The Really Big Question, however, is why we are supposed to overlook her misdirected anger when the film comes to its inevitable happy ending. Presumably this is the Darth Vader Syndrome: no matter how much suffering you have caused, you get Total Absolution for one good turn. At least this time, it’s a woman who is being absolved, which is progress of a kind, I suppose. But truly, what good is a level playing field for the sexes, when the even ground is achieved by lowering standards rather than raising them?
At least Darth had the good grace to die after saving Luke. We’re supposed to accept Maleficent living happily ever after with Aurora, which raises even more unanswered questions, such as: Doesn’t Aurora resent having never met her own mother, for which Maleficent is ultimately to blame, since Aurora’s mother died during the long years when Aurora was in hiding from the woman who cursed her? Is Maleficent comfortable with Aurora possessing the trappings of royalty and wealth inherited from Stefan, who “earned” them by violating Maleficent? Or have Maleficent and Aurora come to an understanding, choosing to overlook these messy details.
For a film that pretends to offer a more sophisticated take on a simple tale, MALEFICENT is strangely uninterested in these complexities, offering instead a bland feel-good conclusion that ignores these lingering questions.
Wrapped up in an off-the-rack computer-generated fantasy land, filled with visual noise but no real music, MALEFICENT looks less like a Grimm fairy tale for children of all ages than a carbon copy of EPIC (2103), with live actors pasted into animated landscapes. The disconnect is exacerbated by the post-production 3D conversion, which leaves the live-action characters looking flat but separates them from the artificial backgrounds in a manner that recalls old-fashioned blue-screen special effects, which often made it painfully obvious the actors were not really part of the environments seen behind them.

The fairy godmothers look like ghastly simulations of human beings.
The fairy godmothers look like ghastly simulations of human beings.

At least Angelina Jolie brings some zest to her role; aided by Rick Baker’s makeup, she alone among the cast almost seems to fit into this fantasy world. The same cannot be said for the three fairy godmothers, who in their smaller form are ghastly simulacrums of humanity, their computer animated faces acting as classic examples of the “Uncanny Valley” phenomenon. (They look quite fine when the grow to full size and are played by actual actresses, but their personalities remain equally annoying.)
The rest of the cast is bland, barely more animated than their phony surroundings. Copley strives hard to appear a genuine threat, but he’s too obviously a fall guy (literally, as it turns out) to really register.
Special effects are technically impressive but lack originality (we get yet another version of the giant tree warrior special effects seen in LORD OF THE RINGS, not to mention NOAH). The CGI dragon is nicely rendered, but since it no longer is a manifestation of Maleficent (rather, it is her servant, who usually appears as a raven), there is no emotional resonance, nor is its appearance truly decisive in the climactic battle; it’s just more stuff thrown into the frame. Like almost everything else in MALEFICENT, it’s a great image for the trailer but just another jumbled fragment of a feature film whose pieces fit with all the symmetry of two separate puzzles mixed randomly together.
SPOILERS
The most troubling unanswered question lingering over the movie is ignored with blithe indifference by the script:
Is Aurora cool with Maleficent having killed her father?
Sure, Stefan turned out to be a bad guy, but when you think of it, he did not behave as badly as he could have; as terrible as his crime against Maleficent was, he showed some restraint, only pretending to kill her. In a film that strives to find a spark of goodness hidden inside a heart of darkness, it seems odd that the screenplay can find no hint of sympathy for Stefan, who instead turns into a standard issue Disney villain, dying a standard issue villain’s death. You know how it goes: hero has the villain at the brink of death, relents; villain responds by trying to stab hero in back, forcing hero to kill villain in self-defense. Watch BEAUTY AND THE BEAST again: Stefan goes out exactly like Gaston. Which should not be too big a surprise, since both films were written by Linda Woolverton. The real surprise is how Woolverton could go from crafting one of Disney’s finest achievements to churning out this formulaic junk.
And just in case you were wondering, the ending sees Maleficent getting her wings back, leaving you to ponder yet another question: If it was that easy, why didn’t she do this sixteen years ago and avoid all the grief inflicted on everyone else?
END SPOILERS

[rating=1]
Avoid at all cost.
Maleficent (2014) poster
MALEFICENT (2014). Walt Disney Pictures. PG. 97 minutes. Directed by Robert Stomberg. Written by Linda Woolverton, based on SLEEPING BEAUTY (1959). Cast: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Brenton Thwaits, Juno Temple, Lesley Manville, Sam Riley.

X-Men: Days of Future Past – Radio Film Review

Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has her own solution to the Vietnam conflict in X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST.
Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) has her own solution to the Vietnam conflict in X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST.

Time is, time was, time’s X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST. There were clearly commercial reasons why the latest chapter in the X-MEN franchise had to be a time travel tale: Having previously flubbed the introduction of a new, younger Professor X and Magneto  (James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender, respectively) in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, the producers clearly wanted to recover a bit of the franchise’s mojo by bringing back the old band — namely Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen under the direction of Bryan Singer (plus Hugh Jackman) — while also trying to finesse the audience into a better appreciation for their replacements. The side benefit is that the time period decided upon for this film has interesting significance for the themes explored in the X-MEN universe. After my quick review of the surprisingly decent MALEFICENT, I turn my attention to what Singer has wrought. Click on the player to hear the review.

Right-click to download: X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST

LISTEN TO HOUR OF THE WOLF
EVERY THURSDAY AT 1:30 AM
ON WBAI 99.5FM IN NEW YORK CITY

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.