Thursday, December 16, 2010

Falkor, Vermithrax Pejorative, Draco, Maleficent & more movie dragons

Look! Up on the screen! It’s the brave Eragon the Alagaesian taking back his homeland from the evil King Galbatorix of the Forsworn with the aid of Saphira the dragon and the forces of Varden! We were going to use “Eragon” as a springboard to write about the silliest names in film history, but then thought it might be easier to just focus on the Top Ten Movie Dragons.

10) Falkor in “The NeverEnding Story” (1984)
Proof positive that nostalgia is an impenetrable fortress of forgiveness, “The NeverEnding Story” is, well, unbearable unless you first saw it as a small child, in which case it’s a beloved masterpiece. At the center of the German fable about a young boy who must save the land of Fantasia is Falkor, a creepy dog-dragon hybrid that’s only slightly less believable than Pterri the Pterodactyl from “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” But we knew that to omit the fuzzy pup- er, dragon would be to incur the wrath of all of you born after 1979!

9) The Daddy Dragon in “Reign of Fire” (2002)
Unlike most of the films on this list, “Reign of Fire” doesn’t take place in some fictitious fantasy world of long ago, but rather Europe in the near future. In 2008 London, an underground construction crew awakens a nest of hibernating dragons, which quickly begin to lay waste to most of the world. A ragtag team of “freedom fighters” led by Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey realize that the entire dragon population is sired by one male dragon, and set out to put an end to the spreading of his fiery seed (heh). The movie is a bizarre melding of genres that tries too hard to scientifically explain its ludicrous setup, but at least the dragons are pretty spectacular.

8) Vermithrax Pejorative in “Dragonslayer” (1981)
In “Dragonslayer” (set in the more-typical milieu of the middle ages), King Casiodorus has promised an endless supply of sacrificial virgins to appease the dragon Vermithrax Pejorative (perhaps named by Frank Zappa). But when the next virgin in the queue turns out to be his daughter, the king enlists a young wizard’s apprentice to eliminate the fire-breather. The film uses “go-motion,” a variation on stop-motion animation in which the camera shoots the puppets being moved slightly (rather than taking a frame after it’s been slightly moved), creating some pretty dazzling pre-CG dragon fx. The movie also contains some fairly cynical ideas about where nice guys finish, which is particularly refreshing in the typically happy-ending fantasy context.

7) Haku in “Spirited Away” (2001)
Hayao Miyazaki’s Japanese anime blockbuster, “Spirited Away” took home the Best Animated Feature Oscar in 2003, and deservedly so. The movie tells the tale of Chihiro Ogino, a sad girl lost in a new town whose family stumbles across a tunnel which leads to a bathhouse where spirits go to relax. When Chihiro’s parents are turned into pigs, she’s helped by Haku, a magical lake spirit who sometimes appears as a young boy, but can also take on the form of a dragon. Haku is just one of a myriad of beautiful, yet disturbing creatures in the film, one of the most visually mesmerizing works of animation in the artform’s history, refreshingly honest and lacking in anything remotely cutesy. And it’s all hand-drawn, people!

6) Draco in “Dragonheart” (1996)
Ten years ago, the age of digital effects was just a-dawning as evidenced in this medieval fantasy flick starring Dennis Quaid as the noble Bowen, last of a dying breed of dragon-slaying knights. When Bowen finally finds himself against Draco, the last dragon, it signals the end of an era… until the two start talking. Yes, that’s right, talking. Bowen and Draco form an alliance against the tyrannical King Einon. The film is mostly remembered for the choice of the actor to voice the CGI dragon: none other than the original 007, Sean Connery, which makes us wonder if Draco prefers his knight’s blood shaken or stirred.

5) Elliott in “Pete’s Dragon” (1977)
In this Disney musical, Elliott is a pink-haired animated dragon who befriends the live-action orphan Pete in a seaside town in Maine called Passamaquoddy. Elliott becomes Pete’s guardian angel, protecting him from abusive foster parents and a con man named Doc Terminus. Luckily for our heroes, Elliott has the power to make himself invisible, which probably also was a boon for the animators.

4) Sauron’s servants in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy (2001-2003)
Perhaps no filmmaker has made better use of CGI technology than Peter Jackson in his epic “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. Amidst all the many, MANY CG elements in the films, few leapt off the screen as dramatically as the soaring dragons fighting on the side of the Dark Lord Sauron in the battle for Middle Earth. Ironically, none of the fire breathing beasts (besides the Balrog, which isn’t a dragon) in the trilogy are named, unlike some dragons in other J.R.R. Tolkein tales, depriving us of a moniker for any LOTR dragon on this list!

3) Sokura’s Cave Dragon in “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” (1958)
But incredible dragons did grace the screen before the digital era. “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad” features a ton of terrific stop-motion animation by the legendary Ray Harryhausen. In the groundbreaking film, the classic sailor of myth (Kerwin Matthews) battles a horde of monstrous creatures including a two-headed Roc, a sword-wielding skeleton and a dragon that guards the entrance to the evil Sokura’s castle. The film may not have quite the dazzle of the skeleton army battle in 1963’s “Jason and the Argonauts,” but the clash between the dragon and a huge Cyclops is another really cool example of that grand old “movie magic.”

2) Maleficent in “Sleeping Beauty” (1959)
We’ll cop to not being the biggest fans of the Walt Disney empire, with its formulaic family-friendly fodder, but even cynics like us have to admit that some really gorgeous work emanated from the studio. 1959’s “Sleeping Beauty” came at a time when both budgetary restraints and an esthetic shift brought about animation that was far more expressionistic and less soft than, say, “Snow White.” The evil fairy Maleficent is an angular, harsh, frightening presence in human form, but when she transforms into a huge, purple, green-fire breathing dragon, it’s one of the most terrifying scenes in any Disney film, and may well be the best looking dragon on this list.

1) King Ghidorah in numerous Godzilla and Mothra movies (1954 on)
You gotta be big and bad to be considered Godzilla’s arch-nemesis, and that’s the title bestowed upon the giant three-headed dragon King Ghidorah, , the twin-tailed, laser spewing winged stalwart of many a Toho Kaiju battle epic! How bad is Ghidorah? So bad that the atomic-breathing Godzilla often needs help to defeat him (and we’re talking someone like Rodan, not Matthew Broderick)! Like Godzilla, Ghidorah’s appearance and powers have evolved over the years, even becoming a cyborg “Mecha-King Ghidora” with solar powered metal wings… but we prefer the good old fashioned rubber suited dragon.

Please note that we intentionally excluded the CGI creations in the horrendous 2000 movie version of “Dungeons & Dragons,” the muppetlike Yowler from the execrable 1994 children’s flick, “Dragonworld," Eddie Murphy’s grating Mushu from “Mulan” (1998) and the female dragon, Dragon in “Shrek” (2001). Devon and Cornwall, the two-headed dragon from 1998’s “Quest for Camelot” almost made the cut just because it’s voiced by Eric Idle and Don Rickles. 2002’s “Red Dragon” doesn’t count because it’s just a tattoo. But we did have to fight to keep from putting 1973’s “Enter the Dragon” on this list. Honestly, if Bruce Lee had just spit some fire in that quintessential martial arts flick, he’d be at least #3.

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