Monday, December 15, 2014
The Five Best Dragon Movies
Because dragons make everything better.
This week sees the release of our last visit to the cinematic Midde-Earth (at least, until Peter Jackson needs another hit) with the final Hobbit movie, The Battle of the Five Armies, and although this trilogy hasn't really lived up to the one that came before, there's one thing we can all agree on: Smaug is pretty boss. So, in honor of the almighty Cumberbatch and the legion of animators at Weta Digital, let's take a look at some of the best dragon movies of all time!
5. Sleeping Beauty
That ill-advised live-action kerfluffle from earlier this year aside, Maleficent still remains the absolute best villain Disney animation has ever produced, and a large part of that is her ability to turn into a bitchin' dragon. Aside from that, Sleeping Beauty is possibly the most immaculately-designed of the Disney animated films, favoring sharp, angular designs rather than the more traditional "soft" Disney style. Further proof for the movie's dragon cred: that amazing fight between Prince Phillip and Maleficent, which has gone on to inform just about every visual interpretation of a dragon fight ever since.
Terry Gilliam's first movie directed all by his lonesome acts a sort of companion piece to his earlier Monty Python work, although played a bit straighter and with more of that social commentary that would later make him famous. It's a dragon movie on a budget, but as silly as the titular Jabberwock may appear at times, what the filmmakers achieve is still quite impressive, considering it's really a man in a gigantic suit walking backwards. The film is also the perfect evocation of the types of movies Gilliam continues to make to this very day, these sort of absurd but layered fairy tales with a style that could equally be equally described as low-key and overblown.
Vermithrax Pejorative just might be the best-realized dragon in all of cinema, designed and animated by ILM at the height of their powers. Through stop-motion animation, motion control cameras and a sixteen foot tall animatronic head, its hard to see how Vermithrax will ever be topped. But the most impressive thing about the dragon is how little he's seen - the film builds to the reveal, ala Jaws or Jurassic Park, where we only catch glimpses of it here and there before he's revealed in all his glory. The film itself may be a tad hokey and dated by today's standards, but is an important step towards the more realistic portrayal of epic fantasy as seen currently on Game of Thrones. The world developed here is not one of knights in shining armor or maidens locked away in tall towers, but one closer to the grimy, desolate reality of the Dark Ages, with all the social commentary on religion and politics we take for granted in our genre work nowadays.
2. Reign of Fire
Long before the "McConaugh-issance," Matthew McConaughey took some time off from his rom-com career to make this absolute gem of a movie, whereupon he plays a dragon hunter by the name of Denton Van Zan, who is basically a 3 3/4'' GI Joe action figure come to life. McConaughey is joined by a pre-superstar Christian Bale and Gerard Butler, in an amazing post-apocalyptic future brought on by the discovery that dragons are still alive. Fresh off his work on The X-Files, Rob Bowman begins his (sadly never realized) summer blockbuster career, creating the type of movie all us genre nerds are desperate for. Reign of Fire feels custom-made for it's own D&D campaign, what with it's rules for capturing and killing dragons in this world. And the dragons themselves are suitably-intimidating, featuring awesome designs by comics legend Bernie Wrightson.
I'll likely catch flack for this, but I don't care, because Beowulf is for my money the absolute best dragon movie ever made. Although likely to go down as a footnote in that weird time Robert Zemeckis made nothing but creepy motion-capture animated movies, Beowulf is nonetheless a staggering achievement. Its animation and Zemeckis' "Hey, Kids! It's 3D!" style haven't aged particularly well, but the performances and script by Roger Avary and Neil Gaiman are a fantastic update of the earliest surviving poem of English literature - and yes, that includes the twist at the end that paints the dragon as the illicit offspring of Beowulf and Grendel's mother. At the risk of gaining the chagrin of tweed-jacketed English professors with the little patches on their elbows everywhere, that reveal not only updates the original story, but actually improves upon it, at least for modern audiences. Avary and Gaiman's script explores the ideal of heroes and leaders, and frames the drama against how all are destined to fail in some way or another. As visually impressive and exciting as Beowulf's final battle with the dragon is, it's the emotional and ethical conflict that remains the most engaging. It's all perfectly epitomized in the moment Beowulf opines to his queen before going off to defeat his last and greatest foe: "Keep a memory of me, not as a king or a hero; but as a man: fallible and flawed."