The original Dragonheart turned twenty years old last year -- gasp! -- and despite the dated CG wizardry and heavy melodramatics, it's still a charming and satisfying burst of fantasy action that continues to win its battle against the test of time. Even though dragons haven't really disappear from the presence of pop culture since then, the mythical creatures have sustained increased attention over the past half-decade, primarily due to the popularity of Game of Thrones but also because of certain movies and videogames that keep the interest burning bright. This has led Universal and their SyFy Channel to continue pursuing sequels within the Dragonheart franchise, yet they haven't successfully branched out its subsequent small-screen outings into a compelling universe, instead appearing like copies of other productions for the sake of striking while the dragon iron's hot. Where the other sequels at least attempted to develop the storytelling capabilities, the latest, Dragonheart: Battle For the Heartfire, reverts to the original's formula and slavishly duplicates its plot design and intents, only with the overused twin siblings' trope at its core.
Those two siblings are Edric (Tom Rhys Harries) and Meghan (Jessamine-Bliss Bell), both of whom were born with a deep connection to the mythical dragons of yore, evidenced by the strange scaly green growth on different parts of their bodies. Separated at a young age after an accident, they have both gone on to develop their own types of fame, despite both still being quite young. Battle for the Heartfire largely focuses on Edric, who has developed into a renowned fighter and sheriff of a small village, specializing in knocking his opponents down with his superior strength. The secrets of his lineage are brought about once he's visited by a dragon, Drago (Patrick Stewart), who explains that he's meant for greater things than merely protecting the peace of his town: that he's next in a bloodline to become ruler of the land. Alas, there's the problem of his sister also sharing the birthright to his throne, a conflict that arises once his sister comes out of hiding, demonstrating her own supernatural prowess. A clash forms between them, and those that follow them, with the fire-breathing Drago trying to decipher how they're both connected to the dragon.
Dragonheart may not be a brilliant piece of fantasy writing, but there was at least some internal logic involved with how the magic of the dragon's severed heart, fused into a dying prince's chest following an accident, resulted in a connection between the malevolent prince and his mythical savior. Battle For the Heartfire bothers little with making much sense out of how Drago shares the same sort of connection to the twins -- chalked up to the magic of bloodlines -- let alone how they also inherited mystical powers, as if they were the hybrid children of dragons. That's a consistent theme with the rest of the script from Matthew Feitshans, who also penned Dragonheart 3: The Sorcerer's Curse, where the devices and hindrances of high-fantasy become growingly more absurd as the film continues, especially once the concept of "heartfire", the dragon's ability to generate and propel fire that can somehow be sucked out with a magic vial, enters the equation. It's all stock fantasy concepts, but they don't really jibe with the rest of the universe created in the previous films.
Expanding on the Dragonheart lore might've ignited something novel in the franchise had both the twins been fresh, endearing characters, but only one of em gets that job done in Battle For the Heartfire, and it isn't the protagonist. Embracing the petulance and cockiness of a young man bequeathed with superhuman strength, Edric embodies some of the mannerisms displayed by King Einon in the original, mixed with a little King Joffrey and the looks of Theon Greyjoy for good measure. In short, Tom Rhys Harries's character isn't particularly likable, to a point where a predictable switchover into a redemptive, understanding attitude wouldn't really work. His sister, on the other hand, tends to be more compelling once she arrives, sporting a magic-user's skillset and a suppressed grudge for how she was abandoned many years prior. This manifests into oddly-forced expressions of female empowerment and discrimination, an attempt at accomplishing something more "mature" and profound with the script that falls incredibly flat in this scenario, yet can be overlooked while observing how she ascends in power due to her general dejection.
Does it seem kid of odd that Drago hasn't been emphasized very much yet in this review for Dragonheart: Battle For the Heartfire? That's because the dragon has largely been reduced to a tributary element alongside everything else that's going on, as if the conflict involving the power-infused twins with royal claims to a throne was first fleshed out and later had the franchise's mythology slathered into the empty gaps. Patrick Stewart musters a regal, booming voice for Drago that frequently recalls a similar tempo to that of Sean Connery's performance in the original, bequeathing the film a little retroactive continuity that tiptoes around Ben Kingsley's admirable yet incongruous verbal tempo as the same mythological character from Dragonheart 3. Unlike the unique head-butting partnership that forms between Draco and Bowen -- or even Gareth and Drago from the previous sequel -- the relationship between the dragon and this film's obstinate protagonist Edric appears almost like a mentor or a surrogate parent preaching virtues and responsibility, and it's hard to buy that a bond forms there.
Drago's other frustrating role in Dragonheart: Battle For the Heartfire also comes in the form of once again being a "neutered" dragon, in that his fire-breathing capabilities are stolen at a crucial time so that the story doesn't have a fire-breathing variable flying around that'd easily resolve its conflict. The visual effects are decent enough in rendering the talking, flying beast and mystical fire outside of combat, yet there's a lack of sharpness to the texture of Drago that was appreciated in The Sorcerer's Curse; he looks more like Draco, both in facial presence and the budget-minded patchiness of the visual effects. Despite the title, however, there isn't a lot of high-fantasy action in Battle for the Heartfire to challenge these visual effects. Clashes are mostly strategic maneuvers hinged on this universe's own little game of thrones, while also slavishly trying to duplicate the emotional cues -- stargazing, rogues into heroes, mortal sacrifice -- that made the original work as well as it does. Unable to stoke the same B-movie satisfaction, it's a dim sequel indicating a franchise that's ready to be axed.
Video and Audio:
The digitally shot Dragonheart: Battle For the Heartfire aims for a familiarly gritty, personal approach to the cinematography, largely consisting of exterior shots in woodland areas and shadowy interior shots with pools of light coming into sparse rooms. Universal's Blu-ray brilliantly telegraphs the highpoints of the footage through its 1.78:1-framed, 1080p AVC transfer, capturing the dense textures of stone walls, of both coarse and fine garments, and of skin and hair textures throughout, as well as the digital clarity of swirling fire and Drago's ornate scales. Generally, the palette leans toward unsaturated colors, but there are plenty of fine moments where lush greens, vibrant fire yellows and oranges, and warm skin tones defy the well-handled and balanced low-color shades elsewhere. Contrast can be a challenge, though: many scenes offer immensely nuanced depth and black levels, but others struggle with washed-out and/or discolored shadows. For the most part, however, Battle for the Heartfire stands strong.
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is an active, tolerable, yet restrained surround treatment that lands its shots without making a strong impact. The lapping of fires, the woosh of Drago's wings, and the thump of arrows employ moderate separation in the front channels and subdued bass response, getting points across without much natural heft. Dialogue stays discernible throughout and engages high-end and middle-ground clarity well enough, while Patrick Stewart's mildly distorted voice treatment mingles with the lower-end bass response enough to give the dragon's presence enough boom. There isn't much engaging surround activity, though, and all the sound elements lack that extra step up in clarity that'd make them memorable, coming across with the weight of an average television broadcast than the dynamism of a motion picture. It's suitable, but could've possessed more firepower.
A couple of brief extras have been included for this fourth installment in the Dragonheart franchise: a Making of Dragonheart: Battle For the Heartfire (4:53, 16x9 HD) takes a standard, blitzed glimpse at the origin of the ideas in the film, featuring interviews with Patrick Stewart and the cast/crew discussing the sibling conflicts and the empowering female ambitions of the script. The Magic Behind Drago (4:37, 16x9 HD) reveals the visual and sound effects that go into transforming Stewart into the fantasy creature, while Inside the Castle (3:41, 16x9 HD) offers insights into the gorgeous shooting location in Romania where the film takes place.
A Digital Copy has also been included.
Patrick Stewart is a great fit for the voice of a dragon in this universe, the female magic-using twin commands an interesting presence, and there's a faint hint of nostalgic familiarity to how this fourth sequel in the Dragonheart franchise, Battle for the Heartfire, plays out. None of this ends up being enough to offset its woes, though, such as lacking an appealing protagonist, not really disguising its reused concepts very well, or again coping with a plot scenario where the focal dragon has one of his crucial, intriguing attributes removed from his repertoire thus weakening the ensuing action. Certain things are better, other things are worse, and fatigue has further set in with this franchise's ambition to coexist with the likes of other, similar fantasy productions across the fiction board. Genre fans might want to give this one a Rental, but most won't miss anything soaring right over this one.