Dragons Slain While You Wait

Posted Wednesday, August 27, 2014, 7:00 AM


When I think back on the movies that I enjoyed as a teenager, it's clear that my tastes were not sophisticated enough to be very discerning. To me any exciting piece of cinematic razzle dazzle was an afternoon well spent, especially in the company of friends. And yet, when I look back, though I can now recognise a dud when I see it, every one still holds a lot of joy for me.

So amongst such gems as Raiders of the Lost Ark, The Empire Strikes Back, ET, Goonies, and Gremlins, I still hold great affection for Popeye (Robin Williams, RIP), Condorman, Superman III, and today's reviewed movie, Dragonslayer. They each had something that made them resonate.

This post is part of the ongoing saga of reviews of 80s fantasy movies of my youth, also simul-reviewed by my mate Pete aka Jetsimian, and his mate Jamas.

Sir Ralph Richardson's performance definitely raises everyone's game.

After a band of travellers, led by Valerian (Caitlin Clarke) plea for the sorcerer Ulrich (a brief but beautiful performance from Ralph Richardson) to help save their village from the dragon Vermithrax Pejorative, a dickhead, Tyrian, swaggers in and ruins their plans when he somewhat accidentally (it's complicated) kills the sorcerer. Galen, the sorcerer's apprentice, steps in to take his place.

For some reason Peter MacNicol doesn't like to talk about his experiences on the set of Dragonslayer

Galen is earnestly played by Peter MacNicol. You may know him as the quirky maths mentor in Numb3rs, or the quirky lawyer in Ally McBeal, or the quirky gallery owner in Ghostbusters II. Here he is much less quirky, and, though initially cocky when he takes the mantle of Master Sorcerer, he is soon confronted with hard won responsibility, and he grows up fast.

Caitlin Clarke may be responsible for my ongoing affection for tomboyish brunettes

Valerian, a young woman masquerading as a boy to avoid being chosen as a dragon sacrifice, leads the villagers and Galen to Vermithrax's cave, where he causes half a mountain to block the entrance. Celebrations ensue, but we're only a third through the movie, so perhaps they are being a tad premature. Vermithrax soon makes his continuing existence felt. Religion fails to do anything, as a praying priest, a pre-Emperor Palpatine Ian McDiarmid, is the next to be fed upon.

Full scale dragon limbs and heads are also judiciously used by the special effects team

This is where the artistry of ILM comes to the fore, as we catch brief glimpses of Vermithrax's grand figure as he stalks from the cave and glides across the sunset.

The American accents from the two young leads are slightly annoying

When the King's daughter (embarrassingly badly acted by Chloe Salaman) gets her turn at the sacrificial stake, things get critical, and Galen is sent into the cave, though not before he admits his love for Valerian. Though they did only meet a week earlier, and exchanged maybe three sentences together.

The weakest scene in the movie

A rather weak battle with Tyrian at the cave entrance could've been edited out entirely, as it adds very little. It's a notable weak spot in what is otherwise an excellently directed movie. Director Matthew Robbins's strengths do not lie in fight choreography.

Vermithrax moves like a stalking bat in some shots. It's quite intimidating

The imagery from this movie that sticks with me the most, that resonates in my memory the strongest and keeps it listed as one of my favourite ever fantasy films, is the incredible design and stop motion animation work of Vermithrax the dragon. And when I say "stop motion" in fact it was an early iteration of a technique coined as "go-motion" where the moving elements were artificially blurred during each frame to add realistic smoothness to the animation. It is arguably the most effective use of that technique in its history. Coupled with the masterful grasp of the organic motion of animals, it is a tour de force.

There's no more definitive a dragon design than Vermithrax Pejorative

The jeopardy portrayed in this sequence is outstanding. You really feel like Galen is risking his life in every scene, thanks to excellent direction, MacNicol's performance (often entirely against bluescreen), and menacing animation of the dragon, both miniature and full size.

Galen's first volley at the dragon is unsuccessful, and it's only later that he realises his old master was not dead at all, but magically hidden amongst his artifacts, so he could be carried along with them on the journey. And when the old Sorcerer reappears, his plan to defeat Vermithrax at last requires another sacrifice, but this time a true one, freely given. His own.

Though the visual effects are dated, they remain impressive

The storyline of Dragonslayer adheres closely to a fairy tale. Kings, Princesses, Sorcerers, a plucky Apprentice, a fair Maiden, the slaying of a dragon. You can't get more storybook, and the mix is handled as well as might be expected, especially for the time when an epic scale in movies had so recently become the new default standard. This was high adventure, beautifully realised, and taken seriously. The only thing that kept it from greatness was the cynicism of audiences at the time, not ready to view fantasy as a source of genuine drama. If they had, Dragonslayer would be well deserving of fondness and respect.

1 Reasoned Responses:

Jet Simian said...

I see Peter McNichol, but I'm having trouble seeing the other Ghostbusters in this review!

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