Dragons of Filmdom

From Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine-

Dragons of Filmdom

By David Neilsen

Dragons rock. It’s true, there’s no denying it. The idea of a big, majestic, flying lizard swooping down breathing fire makes grown men cry and grown women wonder why their husbands and boyfriends are crying. Sure, dragons never existed, but we WANT them to have existed. Heck, we want them to exist NOW, so long as they’re only torching the neighbor’s yard.

From time to time, Hollywood has had a go at bringing these seriously-top-of-the-food-chain beauties to life. The current Must See TV for the dragonphile is, of course, Game of Thrones. At long last, these rip-roarin’, flame-snortin’ chomp masters can swoop right into our living rooms without the benefit of a warbled VHS tape or scratchy DVD. The show is pure dragon nirvana, and with each flap of those leathery wings our hearts soar just a little more. But the dragons you see on your flatscreen did not pop into existence out of whole cloth. They owe a great debt to their ancestors- the Hollywood creations which paved the way, with each iteration building upon its thematic ancestors in a race to create the most realistic, impressive, and downright jaw-dropping creature ever shown on screen. Here is a chronological list of ten of the most influential, important, or just plain coolest dragons in Hollywood history.

#1 – ‘Taro’ from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

Ray Harryhausen’s iconic dragon didn’t talk, didn’t get a whole lot of screen time, and really wasn’t more than a glorified guard dog, but its lasting impact cannot be denied. The stop-motion monster was ahead of its time, and as Kerwin Mathews and Kathryn Grant gaze up at it in astonishment, you are almost able to forget that they are something like twenty times Taro’s actual height. Taro’s fight against the Cyclops is epic, and you can’t help but cheer when he finally chomps down on the Cyclops’ neck.

#2 – ‘Vermithrax Pejorative’ from Dragonslayer (1981)

Vermithrax Perjorative is a cranky old dragon who eats young maidens twice a year until Peter MacNicol comes along and gives it a stern talking to. When that doesn’t work, he stabs it with a big spear a bunch of times. When that doesn’t work he blows up his already-dead mentor and takes out V.P. as collateral damage. The movie gives us a touching backstory to the dragon, something about how there used to be a lot of dragons around and then the sorcerers did them wrong and now V.P. is the only one left. On one hand, you can feel sorry for the old guy/girl (the gender is never declared one way or the other)–it’s very old and probably has arthritis, rheumatism, and a serious liver complaint. On the other hand, it eats young maidens twice a year.

#3 – ‘Draco’ from Dragonheart (1996)

With apologies to all other dragons on the list, there was never a better on-screen dragon than Sean Connery’s Draco. He’s fierce, funny, cuddly–if you’re into scales–terrifying, and loveable. Also, he’s Sean Connery. This was a dragon who liked his manflesh shaken, not stirred. Draco was easily the first truly realistic dragon depicted on screen. It moved like a real dragon. It flew like a real dragon. It talked like a real dragon. It was, in every way, the perfect example of a real dragon. If dragons were real. Which they’re not. But they should be. And if they were, Draco would totally be their king.

#4 – ‘Mushu’ from Mulan (1998)

For some reason, Disney cast Eddie Murphy as a major character in an animated musical and he didn’t sing a lick. I found that odd. Dude can sing. I should know, I owned his album and loved to “Party All the Time.” Anyway, three years before Mr. Murphy would become an animated legend in Shrek playing slick-talking, wisecracking, lovable loser Donkey, he was in Mulan playing slick-talking, wisecracking, loveable loser Mushu the family dragon. I wouldn’t say it was the exact same character, because one is a dragon and the other a donkey. But aside from that…

#5 – ‘Saphira’ from Eregon (2006)

Poor Saphira. She looks beautiful–a sleek, blue dragon that is both powerful and enchanting. She sounds beautiful–Rachel Weisz voices the character to perfection. But she’s forced to say some really stupid things like “Without fear, there cannot be courage. But when we are together, it is our enemies who should be afraid!” and “I am Saphira. And you… are my rider.” The entire movie is utterly horrid, and watching it has been officially labeled a form of torture by the Geneva Conventions. It is such a shame, because Saphira as a CGI character is really quite stunning. She deserves to be flying majestically across Middle Earth, not crammed into this mindless feat of cinematic bird droppings.

#6 – ‘Queen Narissa’ from Enchanted (2007)

In truth, Queen Narissa is a witch, not a dragon. However, she turns into a dragon at the end of the movie and it’s all kinds of awesome. The sequence is made even more epic with Susan Sarandon’s blissfully-droll delivery coming out of the CGI dragon’s mouth. Her been-there-done-that attitude is a joy to watch as she toys with Amy Adams, taunting her and chasing her up to the top of the skyscraper. Once there, of course, she plummets to her death because this is a Disney movie and that’s what Disney villains do. The brief time between turning into a dragon and turning into dragon pate, however, makes the whole movie worthwhile.

#7 – ‘Dragon’ from Beowulf (2007)

What’s worse than battling a dragon? When that dragon is your son and you have to reach into his body cavity and pull out his heart to save the woman you love. Who isn’t his mother. Which means you’ve probably been pretty naughty. Not to mention a total deadbeat dad. I mean ‘dragon’ doesn’t even have a name! Of course, when Mom is a semi-nude Angelina Jolie, certain mistakes can be forgiven. As long as you pull your child’s beating heart out of his chest. You just know Beowulf went into some serious therapy after that.

#8 – “The Jabberwocky’ from Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Christopher Lee was Saruman in Lord of the Rings. And Count Dooku in Star Wars. And Dracula. And he sang death metal. How did it take until 2010 for somebody to make him a dragon? His Jabberwocky was creepy, clever, and used a lot of tongue. When he comes whiffling through the tulgey chessboard to attack Alice, burbling all the while, you see his intelligence and cunning. And when the vorpal blade goes snicker-snack, your heart leaps into your throat. It is truly a frabjous moment.

#9 – ‘Toothless’ from How to Train Your Dragon (2010)

I loved this movie. I loved Toothless. Soft, sleek, quiet, and playful, Toothless is Hiccup’s true friend and bosom buddy. Then I read the books and my head spun around like Linda Blair. In the books, Toothless is a tiny, selfish, irritating pet. He’s central to the story, yes, and he comes through more or less at the end of each book, but he spends a lot of time hiding in Hiccup’s shirt and complaining that he’s cold or hot or itchy or hungry. The two dragons could not be more unalike. Movie Toothless would eat Book Toothless for a mid-morning snack and not even notice.

#10 – ‘Smaug’ from The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Benedict Cumberbatch can do no wrong. And dragons are awesome. By combining the two, Peter Jackson hit on the perfect formula to ensure the movie-going public stuck around to watch all three Hobbit movies. Easily the best dragon since Sean Connery’s Draco, Smaug is deliciously evil. We’re talking evil ratcheted up a couple notches and then doubled. He’s scary, he’s pompous, he’s majestic. But mostly he’s evil. If you want a treat, Google “Benedict Cumberbatch, smaug” and check out the behind the scenes footage of Cumberbatch recording his part. He’s in a motion-capture suit and he slithers across the floor, spitting his words out left and right. The dude is beyond method. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn he ate raw human children during the production to get into character.

Other Notables

There have been plenty of other cinematic dragons down through the years. From full characters like Falcor from The Neverending Story and Dragon (a popular name) from Shrek to eye-popping, nameless beasts like those in the fabulous Harry Potter movies, the underappreciated Reign of Fire, or the “I Wish I could Pluck Out My Eyes and Unsee This Film” Dungeons & Dragons. Some of them are animated, some are live-action computer-generated characters. Some talk, some don’t. Some fly, some breathe fire, some are in need of serious dental work.

What they all have in common is that they are dragons–magical creatures of myth and legend come to life before our eyes. We love to witness the awesome power of these monsters as they crush puny humans beneath their feet or roast random thatch-roofed huts with their fiery breath. Even when the rest of the movie or TV show is God-awful, the lure of a dragon will keep us in our seats until the end credits.

Or at least until the dragon’s dead. Beyond that, no promises.