Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Heath Holland On...My Five Favorite Movie Dragons (Not Named Smaug)

Smaug is the latest in a long history of great movie dragons.

Say what you will about The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, but you have to give it up for Smaug the dragon, voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. That dragon is now my favorite winged serpent in movie history, a perfectly realized creation that is both terrifying yet also a wonderful conversationalist.

Despite the fact that this dragon talks (a lot), he feels to me like he stepped out of some distant history and into the movie screen. For my money, never has a dragon felt quite so solid and real in a movie.

But there’s a rich history of dragons in movies, going all the way back to the golden age of cinema, and dragons have been making kids and the elderly fill their britches for decades. Here are my top five movie dragons (and one honorable mention) and a few words about the movies they appeared in.
5. The dragon from Beowulf

I’ve seen Beowulf on a few “worst movie ever” lists, which is just ridiculous. While the movie is not the greatest thing in the history of cinema, it sports a solid adaptation by Neil Gaiman, who manages to make a compelling script out of a story that’s over a thousand years old and could have been a bunch of “Lo, therefore did thou goest unto the mouth of yon canyon and seat thyself low and relieve thine bowels into the valley below. And there was much gnashing of teeth and regret at the decision to eat the fish floating on the water’s surface.” No, instead we have naked people fighting monsters. In 3D.

Furthermore, the technology Robert Zemeckis employed for The Polar Express has been refined, meaning that Beowulf and his fellow warriors don’t have the number of dead eyes that exist in The Polar Express (okay, there are still SOME dead eyes). But I don’t know how else the story of Beowulf would ever have been made into a movie. There’s another adaptation out there starring Gerard Butler that works just fine, but THERE’S NO DRAGON in that one.
4. The dragons from Reign of Fire

Reign of Fire is a lot of fun. Christian Bale is interesting in a pre-Batman role, and Matthew McConaughey built muscles on top of muscles to be perhaps the toughest dragon hunter in film history. These dragons had the benefit of being developed during the Star Wars prequel era (okay, maybe not such a good thing) and technology had developed to the point where they looked pretty freaking great. This is also the first movie that I can remember that gave us LOTS of dragons, not just one or two. In the end, that might have worked against the movie; if one dragon is scary, 24 dragons is just numbing.

The movie is fun, though, and something that couldn’t have been done much earlier because the technology just wasn’t there to allow a movie about life after a dragon apocalypse to be convincing at all. I’m thinking of the early scenes of Monty Python and the Holy Grail that featured seven people in a muddy field. Okay, speaking of seven people in a muddy field…
3. Vermithrax Pejorative in Dragonslayer

Vermithrax Pejorative came a good decade before computers changed the way special effects were created, but that may actually make Dragonslayer work even better. The dragon is tangible and doesn’t have that CGI flatness that so many early special effects creations had. Look at him! This is a puppet! The design is AWESOME. The horns and scales on the bottom of his mouth that almost look like a beard? Great touch.

I don’t remember a whole lot about this movie because it’s been years since I’ve seen it. I definitely need to revisit it, but the dragon in this movie has been deeply secured in my imagination for years. One of the things I like about Vermithrax is that you don’t see him all the time and in full form like you would in a movie today. The limited budget and effects mean that he’s reserved for maximum impact. When we finally get good long looks at it, there’s definitely a “holy crap” feeling.
2. Maleficent’s dragon form in Sleeping Beauty

I feel totally good about throwing a cartoon dragon on this list when that cartoon dragon is as creepy and iconic as Maleficent in dragon form from the 1959 Disney classic Sleeping Beuty. It’s fascinating to me, because this is an animated movie that is essentially a love story/fairy tale, yet Disney made the decision to scare the pants off of people with the dragon. 

This is in a Disney movie that we show LITTLE BITTY KIDS. This may be the most iconic dragon design in the last 100 years: you can just look at it and see that it’s evil. The spikes on the back, the black and purple with glowing eyes…even the size of the beast is ominous. I have to imagine that this thrilled audiences in 1959 like few other movie monsters had. There were a lot of monsters in movies during those days, but…this is a fire breathing dragon. It wins.
1. Draco the dragon in Dragonheart

What's the only thing cooler than Sir Sean Connery? Sir Sean Connery as a dragon. In 1996, Dragonheart was one of my favorite movies; I was a dorky teen, and in those days I would wear my Star Wars t-shirts to school while reading science fiction and fantasy novels during biology class. These days the kids who do that are cool, but back then it was enough to get you shoved inside a locker.

Dragonheart was an answer to prayers for young Heath Holland. It was a medieval adventure movie starring the very cool Dennis Quaid, Connery as the last of the dragons, and some pretty interesting allusions to the mythology of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. What’s more, the film didn’t wink at the audience, but took all this on with the rousing earnestness of the great adventure films of the ‘40s and ‘50s.

Draco the dragon, until Smaug, was the greatest dragon I’d ever seen. Most of that credit goes to Sean Connery, but some of it goes to the effects wizards who made this dragon look as real as anything we’d seen up until then while also giving him facial expressions and emotions. Draco actually looked dignified and noble. Three years after Jurassic Park, we actually got to see one of those big lizards talk.

And now Smaug has come along and changed things again. There seems to be no limit to what we can see now, but I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the dragons listed above.
*Honorable mention: Falcor from The Neverending Story

I would be remiss if I concluded this list without at least tipping my hat to Falcor from The Neverending Story. The reason he didn’t make the top five is that he’s just not quite traditionally “dragon” enough for my criteria (he’s furry, not scaly, he doesn’t have traditional wings, etc), but it would be wrong not to mention him because Falcor is awesome! Besides, what kid who grew up in the 1980s doesn’t have a love for this guy? This gentle dragon is one of the most beloved creations of my generation. Fly on, Falcor!


  1. Falcor's face looks very much like the cocker spaniel I had growing up. Ah, memories.

    Excellent article, Heath. I've shared it with others.

    1. You know, I JUST realized that they gave Falcor a dog's face to make him even more lovable. I think I just took his appearance for granted until then.

      Thanks for sharing, and thanks for reading.

  2. Heath, what do you think about Eragon?

    1. Not a fan. I thought it was third generation Tolkien. But I only watched it once, in theaters. It's probably due for a revisit. The dragon looks cool.

  3. Glad to see Falcor getting some love. My parents took me to see Neverending Story in the cinema, which was my first cinema experience (I think). I was only 4 or 5 at the time and my only memory from it was at the end when Falcor swoops down on the bully kids in the street, there is a close up on Falcor's face as he is coming down when he roars at them. I literally jumped out of my seat and hid under the chair. Thats really fucking weird now I think about it. I had just spent over an hour with the character, knew him as lovable and friendly, and that the bullies were a bunch of turd-burgers....yet I was scared shitless at that time.
    The power of cinema....and the retardedness of a 4 year old.

    Havent seen any of the other movies. Am I dragon-phobic, or Ant-dragatic? Hrmm,
    Isnt it interesting that the dragon design is near identical in all of those images. I wonder where that comes from? What s the original dragon image?....(besides real dragons of course. Right, kids?!)

  4. Excellent list Heath, I actually agree with your 5 picks but would mix up the order myself slightly (Reign of Fire dragons are so damn awesome) One quick honorable mention also to the Harry Potter dragons, while not as threatening as some of the dragons on the list I still think they are well done.

    I will say though I really wish they would find a way to mix the practical effects of Dragonslayer and the detailed CGI of the Reign of Fire dragons to create the perfect movie dragon, I know it will be harder to shoot Peter Jackson but come on challenge yourself!

  5. No love for Toothless? Trailer for the second movie recently came out. I don't know how excited I am.

  6. Draco is one of my favorite dragons and I think DragonHeart deserves a remake. The novelization written by Charles Edward Pogue is seen as the true definitive version, as the film is but a shadow of the original praised screenplay he wrote for it. DragonHeart was meant to be a serious, transcendent drama, but through the development process, it ended up a cheesy and cliché family-friendly flick.