Since the earliest times of man, dragon legends have flourished. There are examples of dragon lore from the ancient Greeks, early Europeans and east Asian cultures dating back 4,000 years. With “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” (Smaug's a dragon, in case you haven't heard!), opening in theaters this week, it's a fine time to revisit a few of the dozens of films featuring these (sometimes) awesome creatures.
8. “Sleeping Beauty.” (animated, 1959)
Probably not routinely characterized as “a dragon movie,” this fine Walt Disney production may have nevertheless marked the first time many of us were exposed to the fearsome sight of a huge, fire-breathing dragon on screen. To prevent the Prince from waking up his slumbering love, the evil sorceress Maleficent transforms into a massive black-and-purple bat-winged dragon, replete with glowing eyes and teeth that gnash like the sound of steel doors being slammed. Setting the forest of thorns on fire with greenish-tinged flaming dragon's breath couldn't prevent the Prince from hurling his sword into her evil heart. Terrifying for young children in the charming Disney manner of the day.
7. “Pete's Dragon.” (1977)
Yet another attempt by Disney to recapture the spirit of “Mary Poppins” with a live-action musical featuring an animated character. And it falls pretty far short of the mark. It stars Helen Reddy (not an actor), Mickey Rooney, (not a singer) and Sean Marshall as Pete, an orphan with an imaginary friend named Elliott (not so imaginary and a dragon, to boot!). I was subjected to numerous viewings of this convoluted tale when my children were young. I certainly hope that none of the curses I called down upon whichever well-meaning friend or relative gifted us with the VHS version of this dreck ever came true. At least Elliott was able to breathe fire after he was served some liquor, courtesy of one of the film's “villains.” Fun for the whole family, indeed.
6. “Eragon.” (2006)
It was supposed to be a big deal, this motion picture adaptation of a best-selling novel by a teenage boy. Instead, it was one of the worst-reviewed films of 2006. (16 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) It had the production budget, ($100 million) the cast (Jeremy Irons, John Malkovich, Rachel Weisz and newcomer Edward Speeler) and the effects powerhouse Industrial Light and Magic to bring it all to life. First-time director Stefan Fangmeier said of Speeler, who won the title role during open auditions, “… you just know that he's destined to become a movie star.” His character, Eragon, is destined to become a dragon-rider, and with the help of an older, wiser mentor, (Irons) to rid his land of its evil emperor (Malkovich). While hailed for its special effects and moderately successful financially, (grossing around $250 million worldwide) Eragon was roundly panned as a rip-off of both “Star Wars” and “The Lord of the Rings.” And those were the good reviews.
5. “Dragonslayer.” (1981)
“Eragon” wasn't the first time LuscasFilm's special effects house worked to bring a dragon convincingly to the screen. “Dragonslayer” marked the first time ILM worked on a movie that was not a LucasFilm production. Vermithrax, the dragon in question, is still hailed by many as one of the all-time great screen dragons. So once there was this young sorcerer's apprentice (Peter MacNicol, with a fabulous golden perm!) his mentor, Obi-w… er, Ulrich, the last sorcerer, an expedition led by a young man (really a girl) named Valerian, for whom Ulrich is the last hope to defeat a fearsome dragon that terrorizes her homeland, and an evil centurion named Tyrian, who kills Ulrich, leaving it up to the young apprentice to… oh, you get the idea. This film was also criticized for being derivative of “Star Wars,” with the dragon basically filling in for the Death Star. Critics in general, however, liked the movie (85 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes). Audiences were not convinced– “Dragonslayer” grossed about $14 million against an $18 million production budget. But the film has gained “cult classic” status since its release on home video.
4. “Beowolf” (2007)
Oscar-winning director Robert Zemeckis, (“Forrest Gump,” “Flight”) a pioneer in and champion of digital filmmaking, decided to put the performance-capture 3D animation techniques he had developed in making 2004's “The Polar Express” to work in retelling the classic epic poem “Beowolf." “Beowolf” is not a “a dragon movie” per say, but the climactic battle between the title character and a rampaging, fire-breathing dragon is a sight to behold, and certainly one of the most awesome man vs. dragon sequences to ever appear in theaters. The film was well reviewed, but audience interest in the ultra-realistic but kind-of-creepy not-quite real look of 3D motion-capture animation may have been overestimated. Or perhaps it was audience interest in classic epic poetry. Whatever the reason, “Beowolf” grossed only $196 million worldwide, against an estimated production budget of $150 million.
3. “Dragonheart.” (1996)
What if a mystical dragon gave a dying young prince a piece of his own heart to keep him alive? What if a cynical knight and that last dragon teamed up to con villages for money with staged dragon-slayings? What if the young prince grew to be an evil despot and the knight and the dragon joined the rebellion against him? Who asks questions like these? Probably no one but the writers of “Dragonheart.” Despite it's scattershot plot, this film is notable for giving birth to the cinematic dragon with the most personality, ever. Sean Connery is both the voice and the soul of Draco, the dragon, and the result is charming, to say the least. Dennis Quaid stars as Bowen, the jaded night, and he delivers a game, if serviceable, performance. My only real issues with this movie were the somewhat disjointed nature of the story and the feeling that Quaid would be more at home in a cowboy hat than in armor, and that any moment the dragon might request “a vodka martini, shaken, not shtirrrred.”
2. “How to Train Your Dragon” (2010)
This 3D animated DreamWorks production might well have been the most successful dragon movie of all time, at least until the tally for “Desolation of Smaug” comes in. It's worldwide haul was close to $500 million, rivaling Disney's “Tangled” and Universal/Illumination Entertainment's “Despicable Me” that same year. And it wasn't just a hit at the box office. The story of an awkward viking lad whose quest to become a dragon slayer is derailed by the friendship he forms with a wayward, injured dragon delighted critics, as well as audiences. The film enjoys a 98 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and critics from Roger Ebert to Rolling Stone's Peter Travers expressed their admiration for the movie, particularly in terms of the animation. Other critics felt that the film came “close to the level of Pixar's recent output.” Two sequels are in the works, with the first being released in 2014.
1. “Reign of Fire, (2002)
Without question, in my opinion, the greatest dragon movie ever made. Director Rob Bowman brings the science vs. mysticism approach that he perfected during his run with “The X-Files” to the big screen with this post-apocalyptic tale of man's world in the future after it has been ravaged by dragons that had been hibernating for centuries underground. Humans have been reduced to a near-medieval existence, and the fire-breathing monsters roam the skies freely, trying to charbroil any remaining people they can find. A ridiculously talented “before they were truly famous” cast including Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey and Gerard Butler chews heavily at the scenery in this movie. Bale is apparently already hard at work on the brooding, burdened persona he will employ to even greater success in the coming Batman films, Butler is up to his usual stoic-but-fierce heroics and McConaughey enters in the second act as a completely out-of-his mind military dragon-hunter who will stop at nothing (seriously!) to destroy the creatures. The climactic battle pitting Bale and McConaughey against the last remaining male dragon on the planet is a fitting climax to this outstanding action-adventure. Not just my favorite dragon movie, but also one of my all-time favorite movies, period.
Given the popularity of Peter Jackson's “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” films, and given his mastery over his craft, I have little doubt that Smaug will come to rank highly in the pantheon of screen dragons. And that's all for the good. Unless you are among the last surviving members of humanity in “Reign of Fire,” you really can't have too many dragons.