Disney released Dragonslayer in the year 1981. The movie came out only a couple of years after the less-than-stellar The Black Hole in 1979. It is Disney’s next attempt at a more adult-themed movie. For the most part, it succeeded.
Coming out of the dismal decade of the 70s, Disney tried everything to remain relevant. This meant putting out less G-rated kids’ films and expanding their repertoire, and then along comes Dragonslayer. At a superficial glance, it looks like a standard wizard’s apprentice fantasy tale, however it’s a lot darker. A general sense of futility and grim finality obscure the few heroic deeds. This is to accompany the Dark Ages setting.
The story begins with a wizard named Ulrich (Ralph Richardson) and his apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNicol) being visited by a group from the kingdom Urland. The envoys wish to employ a wizard to destroy a dragon named Vermithrax. The dragon holds the kingdom in bondage to its hunger and they regularly sacrifice young women with a lottery system.
The delightfully thuggish soldier Tyrian (John Hallam) and another young man named Valerian (Caitlin Clarke) test Ulrich’s magical power. They stab him through the heart at his urging, only to have him die instantly. Afterward, Ulrich’s magical amulet constantly materializes in front of Galen, urging him to take up Ulrich’s mission.
Galen follows the group back to Urland, during which Galen discovers Valerian is a ‘she’ after he joins her for a bath in a pond. Valerian masquerades as a ‘he’ to escape the lottery.
Shortly after arriving, Galen wields the amulet to bring down then entire mountain on top of Vermithrax’s lair. Believing the dragon slain, the kingdom celebrates and Valerian ‘comes out’ as a woman. The news of the dragon’s death is premature, however. Havoc and swordplay ensue.
I don’t want to give it all away, so let me simply say that the producers spent a full quarter of the film’s entire budge on special effects. Vermithrax is, quite simply, the most amazing and terrifying dragon ever put on film to this day. The audience doesn’t get a good look at it until at least three quarters of the film’s length. The build-up is worth it. Vermithrax is everything a fantasy geek expects of a dragon villain: impressive and dreadful. Nothing is cutesy or humanistic about Vermithrax–it’s a force of death and destruction. Bilbo is never having a conversation or riddle contest with this thing. It’s obviously intelligent, but completely inhuman and malignant.
The special effects by ILM veteran Phil Tippet are extraordinary. In fact, if you’re a young viewer who has never seen it, dig it up and watch it merely to see how a true master handled special effects before CGI. Tippet created the monster through puppetry, practical effects and a type of stop-motion animation called Go Motion. The combined techniques make you believe this winged nightmare might be real.
Lots of other good stuff is in this movie but the bleak tone and cryptic ending subtract somewhat. It’s not perfect, but definitely worth watching for any fantasy fan. Check it out.
Footnote: Ian McDiarmid (of Emperor Palpatine fame) has a brief cameo in the movie as a village priest who is burned to a crisp by Vermithrax after the priest tries to banish the dragon with his faith.