Well-produced and with beautiful state-of-the-art stop-motion animation effects, Dragonslayer is not at all bad, but lacks the spark to fully capture the imagination.
You can tell from the poster (roughly reproduced on the DVD cover) what the marketers were thinking; Dragonslayer wants to be Star Wars all over again, only different. What we've got is a Tolkien-inflected medieval tale, a fairly serious story about a dragon killing, with nicely-honed overtones of the old, magical world of sorcerers and demons slowly being replaced by religion. And then the story goes too far in its seriousness, traumatizing little kids everywhere with its gory scene of a princess being devoured on-screen by the dragon Vermithrax's goblin-like offspring.
There were plenty of miserable Star Wars wanna-be movies that tried to be jokey or cute and completely missed the mark, like The Ice Pirates. Dragonslayer is to be commended for trying something sober and different.
Ralph Richardson is the Merlin / Obi-Wan character, and he's delightful in his small role bookended at either extreme of the script by Barwood & Robbins (authors of The Sugarland Express). Magically resurrected from the dead and transporting himself to dry land by walking on water, Richardson's first words are, 'Did you bring anything to eat?', a throwaway that's beautifully handled. The film could use more humor elsewhere, because the handsome photography and beautiful Scots landscapes don't compensate for a story that seems too familiar and not quite enough fun.
The sober tale brings in the concept of a lottery for virgins to be delivered to Vermithrax the way Fay Wray was in King Kong. The local King seeks to hold Evil at arm's length by sacrificing the daughters of the kingdom, one at a time. Because he hypocritically keeps his own kin out of the deadly game, the lottery seems sort of a reference to Vietnam, with youth paying for the folly and pride of the older generation. 1
The only females with speaking roles are potential love interests for young Galen, and they're both proud, virtuous and outspoken. Warm Caitlin has common sense, while the noble Princess plays her father's hypocrisy to its logical end, a development that may have looked great on paper but isn't much fun when she becomes a dragon snack.
The effects are marvelous, and show the new company ILM flexing its creative muscles on a giant stop-motion animated monster. Animator Phil Tippett caught the brass ring in Lucasland for stop-motion, and on The Empire Strikes Back developed a computer-assisted method of slightly blurring motion on frames to avoid stop-motion's traditional jerkiness, as seen in the weak work in The Great Rupert. The process was dubbed Go-Motion, and probably with the boosting of top ILM gun Dennis Muren, Tippett got the nod to animate Vermithrax. Basically a variation on the classic dragon, it flies like a dive-bomber, breathes fire and crawls on its folded wings like a bat. Seen only in small doses until his confrontation with the outclassed Galen, the monster looks lean, mean and fueled by hellfire. Tippett manages some great shots with moving cameras; the creature crawling out of the cave-haze, rearing up and vomiting yellow flame at the cavern ceiling. It looks reptilian and is given just enough personality to be loathsome. And a bit of motherly sympathy when it finds out that Galen has chopped its babies to ugly dragon-bits. All that it lacks is a fear factor; the animated monster is too fanciful to be really scary.(spoiler)
The film has a quizzical, almost downbeat ending. The monster is defeated with a gag straight out of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, with a suicidal Ralph Richardson riding it to its doom. 2 In the strange coda, the Christians, led by an oddly-cast Albert Salmi (Wild River) claim the dragon's death as a victory for their Lord, while the scurvy King Casiodorus officially dubs himself the Dragon Slayer of record. With his sorcerer's power lost forever, Valerian and Galen exit to new adventures, but not all the magic seems to have gone ..
Paramount Home Video's DVD of Dragonslayer is an extras-free but beautifully-transferred disc. The rich colors and handsome Scottish landscapes remind us a bit of the new Lord of the Rings pictures, and the sound makes good use of Alex North's effective, non-showoff score.
It would have been nice to learn something more about the effects for Dragonslayer; at this point in time ILM was the most advanced effects house going, and the stop-motion-monster movie was practically extinct. 3
Phil Tippett went on to get the big jobs coveted by old pros Dave Allen and Jim Danforth, working in lavish conditions almost never encountered by those independents. I would have liked to hear his thoughts about how working in the rubber-frame stop-motion world differed from today's CGI effects work.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
1. Well, if the analogy is
thin, it wasn't for me; I was trapped in the 1972 draft lottery, and just got lucky: February
7, #307 - never called up.
2. A much closer replay of the end of Abbott & Costello Meet
Frankenstein (I'm talking about the bit where the Wolfman sacrifices himself to slay Dracula,
leaping out of a window and grabbing the bat in mid-air) is the finish of The Exorcist.
Father Karras does essentially the same thing, pulling Pazuzu's spirit (not Zuzu's petals) into
himself and leaping out a window onto some Georgetown steps.
3. Bedsides the infrequent and (I think) disappointing Harryhausen films
of the 70s, the only stop-motion monster movies were inferior, impoverished efforts like the 1977 Crater
Lake Monster. I believe Tippett worked a bit for Dave Allen on that one, too.