Apparently, the only things worth salvaging from Hollywood’s otherwise lame adaptation of Christopher Paolini’s best-selling fantasy Eragon are the dragons. Which makes sense, mostly because one thing Hollywood hasn’t mishandled over the years is the big-screen use of one of mythology’s most revered creatures. Throughout history dragons have been skillfully portrayed as menacing (the Hungarian Horntail in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire), maternal (Donkey’s love interest in Shrek), nuclear fallout-inflicted (King Ghidorah in the Godzilla franchise) and catatonic (Smaug in The Hobbit). Ralph Fiennes has played one (with that crazy tattoo in Red Dragon), and so has Meryl Streep (as “Dragon Lady” Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada). We practically needed a flying fire-breather just to cover so much territory, but we made it home alive with this roundup of the silver screen’s most memorable dragons.
Sleeping Beauty (1959)
When the evil fairy Maleficent transforms into an enormous fire-breathing dragon, this animated Disney classic turns a trifle terrifying, at least for the little ones. Maleficent’s final battle scene with Prince Phillip, who escaped the evil fairy’s chambers to plant the fateful wet one on Princess Aurora, is unfortunately one of too few action scenes in this beautiful (courtesy of production designer Eyvind Earle), yet slightly slow, flight of fancy.
Pete’s Dragon (1977)
There’s no envying poor Pete: he’s got a wicked hawd set of New England stepparents and nobody believes in Elliott, the lumpy, tongue-dangling, animated dragon acting as his personal guardian angel. (Except a drunken Mickey Rooney, but nobody believes him either.) When Pete and Elliott escape the foster folks to the small Maine fishing town of Passamaquoddy, he asks his dragon to stay invisible so as to not call attention and help him fit in. It doesn’t really work, and Dr. Terminus, a sinister medicine man, starts poking around for the scoop on Elliott (he wants to cut the “monster” up for potions). In an odd offer, Dr. Terminus tries to trade for the dragon, and tenders the boy a growth formula that brings on early puberty. Pete just says no in what now looks like the first-ever anti-steroid message for scrawny little kids.
Vermithrax Pejorative is the Mike Tyson of his kind. The dragon at the heart of this fantasy lives in a fiery lake, devours near-nekked sacrificial virgins and displays a vicous temper. What’s remarkable about this film 25 years after its release is VP still looks great: CGI special effects were not yet in use, so Jim Henson’s puppet factory was brought in to create the chillingly detailed model, and a special “go motion” technique—similar to stop-motion, except the dragon is moved in each still for a blurry effect—was utilized for filming.
The audience never sees the dragon in this extravagantly convoluted film, but its influence is pretty awesome. “It is,” says Merlin to Arthur, “everywhere. It is everything. Its scales glisten in the bark of trees. Its roar is heard in the wind. And its forked tongue strikes like…[as lightening strikes]…lightening.” Merlin goes on and on about the dragon for most of the movie. We get it, already—for an ephemeral being, this dragon (symbolic of the tenuous nature of Arthur’s kingdom, perhaps?) wields a lot of power.
The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Falkor the Luck Dragon may be the most popular non-dragon-looking dragon in cinema. White and fluffy, floppy-eared and big-eyed, flying and smiling, this dog-like dragon in Wolfgang Petersen’s timeless children’s tale befriends Bastian and helps him save Fantasia as a combination orientation leader/chauffeur. But like Elliott in Pete’s Dragon, Falkor can get nasty when push comes to shove: he scares the pee out of some bullies who’d been bothering Bastian during the feel-good ending.
Any dragon with Sean Connery’s pipes deserves mention. This film follows the last dragonslayer (Dennis Quaid) and the last dragon (a poorly CGI-ed creature voiced by Connery) teaming up to help lead a rebellion against a king gone wild. How exactly do these inherent enemies bond with one another? They fight between witty one-liners to a stalemate that ends with the two deciding to talk things over, and Quaid flossing the dragon’s teeth with his sword. “Oh, thank you,” says Connery. “[Sir Elglemore’s] been stuck down there for months. Now, would you mind getting your buttocks off my tongue?” This is one of those films that ages so terribly it eventually becomes good—as a comedy.
Dungeons & Dragons (2000)
Bad omen number one for any dragon movie: Jeremy Irons. It’s strange that the otherwise accomplished British actor stars in Eragon, as well as this unfortunate piece of moviemaking (and little of note in the interim). Oh, the CGI dragons are pretty cool—and there are tons of dragons. In one of the better airborne battle scenes, one dragon is spectacularly impaled on a castle spire. But the dialogue is atrocious, the plot indecipherable and the low-budget trimmings embarrassing. D&D is basically cheap dragon porn.
Reign of Fire (2002)
The quintessential dragon flick: dark, teeming with mythology, realistic in its bleakly futuristic setting, fast-paced and violent as hell. The dragons are frightening and, within the soot-and-ash landscapes of a charred England, look authentic rather than digitally created. Even a bald, swashbuckling Matthew McConaughey is good opposite the solid Christian Bale. For sheer action—think Mad Max with dragons instead of biker gangs—this is the best of the lot.