Dragonslayer: A Forgotten Fantasy Movie

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.

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Television that Needs More Love: Mighty Orbots

In the primeval year 1984, I ran across a keen animated show called Mighty Orbots on ABC.  It only ran for a single season before disappearing without a trace.  Years later when describing it to others, skepticism arose.  No one else acknowledged its existence.  At times I wondered whether or not I had hallucinated the entire series. 

Then came the wonder of the internet and–voila!–it turns out to have existed after all.  Although I didn’t know why it disappeared.  It was vastly superior to the other animated shows at the time, especially the shows it derived from–namely Voltron and Transformers.  With superior animation, better characters and decent writing, the show should have been renewed for several seasons.

Unfortunately not.  My suspicions leaned towards poor marketing, but a lawsuit by Tonka was the real culprit.  Tonka accused the show owners of ripping off their GoBots franchise.  For those of you unfamiliar with GoBots, those were a toy line that basically ripped off Transformers and had its own animated series Challenge of the Gobots (the animation was weak, however the writing wasn’t terrible.)  GoBots has since faded into obscurity and I wouldn’t expect to see a big screen adaptation anytime soon.  Anyway, Tonka torpedoes Mighty Orbots and we only get a single season.  Pity.

The basis for the show is familiar.  Six robots with individual powers merge to form a more powerful robot.  Nothing new there.  However, the robots all have unique powers.  Tor is a super-strong brute.  Bort is a skinny ‘geek’ that can shape shift.  Bo is a ‘female’ Orbot with the ability to control the four elements (earth, air, fire and water.)  Boo is another ‘female’ Orbot with light and illusion powers.  Crunch is a ‘fat’ robot that can eat anything and transform it into energy for the rest.  Ohno is the last Orbot, and she’s a tiny ‘child’ robot who is necessary for the other Orbots to merge into “Mighty Orbot”. 

The leader and leader of the Orbots is Rob Simmons, who is your standard Nerdy Scientist Hero archetype.  He actually has a secret identity when he isn’t working with the Galactic Patrol (which is exactly what they sound like.)  They fight the obligatory evil organization SHADOW in the far future.

The tone of the series was light-hearted and much closer to an American superhero team than either Voltron or Transformers.  The Orbots have ‘superpowers’ instead of a bunch of guns and unlike Voltron, are actually pretty competent and interesting individually.  Also unlike Voltron, this wasn’t a simple Japanese import.  They produced this show specifically for American audiences and it feels like it.  The animation is first rate, especially for a television series.

I watched a couple of episodes recently and, yes, it’s a kid’s show and a bit dated, but still not bad.  Despite having only a single 13-episode season, it also does what few other franchised animated shows do: has an ending.  At the end of the only season, Mighty Orbots fight and defeat the ‘big bad’ leader of SHADOW, a supercomputer critter called Umbra.  So you can watch the only season and still get a satisfying conclusion.

Go check it out. 

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