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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Moments of Coolness #4: The Incredibles Family Reunion & Dash

the-incredibles-04I absolutely adore Pixar’s The Incredibles.  This is (as has been noted by others) how The Fantastic Four should have been.  Almost everything clicks in this movie.  The animation is great, the soundtrack is stellar and the voice actors are terrific.  This, however, is not the gist of my Moment of Coolness.  There are two moments in it that rise above the rest of the film.

No, I’m not talking about Edna Mode (although I adore her as well.)  There is one scene with Dash and one scene with the whole family.  The scenes are close together in the movie but have two separate impacts.  They’re brief, but rise above the rest of the film in a subtle fashion.

Let’s talk about Dash’s scene first.

On the surface, it’s just a nifty action scene.  Dash runs from the flying evil minions in their hovercraft.  Some people have compared it to the speeder bike scene from Return of the Jedi.  There is some resemblance there, but there’s a lot more to it.  The true Moment of Coolness comes when Dash runs out of the jungle onto a lake.  He didn’t realize it was there, and before he knows it, his feet hit the water.  And he keeps running.  He looks down and realizes what he’s doing and lets out a laugh of pure joy. 

the-incredibles-03This is the first time in his life that Dash realizes just what he’s capable of doing.  He sees what his full potential is and he can’t help but laugh.  No one else is around to hear his laugh or see what he’s doing, but it doesn’t matter–he sees it.  It’s the first time he’s seen his power as a gift instead of a curse.  It’s a powerful–but subtle–scene.  Brad Bird pulls it off beautifully.

The second Moment of Coolness scene happens shortly after the Dash scene.

The family gets reunited in the jungle and there’s a moment of familial affection.  A moment later, the evil minions show up and start attacking.  That’s when mom and dad become Elastigirl and Mr. Incredible.  They take down the minions (who had been giving the kids such fits) in seconds with consummate ease.

the-incredibles-01This is the Moment of Coolness.  For the very first time, Dash and Violet realize that mom and dad aren’t just mom and dad.  Their parents are two veteran, kick-ass superheroes.  This is meant to be a metaphor for the first time children realize their parents had lives before them.  That parents are more than just parents.

This realization is summed up in Dash and Violet in just two words: “Wow!” and “Whoa!”

the-incredibles-05Absolutely brilliant.  Brad Bird, I would bear your children, were I so equipped.

So I guess that’s all I’ve got to say about that.

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The Black Hole: (1979) A Very Weird Disney Movie

the-black-hole-01Okay, let’s roll the clock back to 1979 to take a look at Disney’s first PG rated film: The Black Hole.

Star Wars had come out two years earlier and every studio was scrambling to find their niche in the science fiction boom.  Science fiction adventure films were, for the first time ever, considered an ‘A-list’ commodity.  Every studio wanted their ‘own’ Star Wars. The results of this boom were rather a mixed bag, much like The Black Hole.

First, let’s talk about Disney’s state in the 70s.  They were not in terrific shape.  They’d had a string of mediocre animated and kids’ movies and were struggling to stay afloat and/or relevant since Walt kicked the bucket in 1966.  Their bread and butter consisted of re-releasing old Disney classic animation every few years.  Their main claim to fame at this point was the consistent G rating of their movies.

Then comes The Black Hole.  May seem pretty tame by today’s standards, but the idea of a PG Disney movie was radical at the time.

the-black-hole-03Critics ripped the movie and Neil DeGrasse Tyson gave it infamy by saying it has the worst science in a movie of all time (although one wonders whether Neil has seen The Core.)  To be honest, it’s not a terrible movie.  The visual designs are pretty damn good.  Costumes are decent and sets solid.  The robot designs are interesting (although a bit too cutesy with VINCENT and BOB.)  The antagonist robot Maximilian is especially sinister.  The characters are mostly forgettable, the dialogue is soap-opera-cringeworthy and yes, the science is terrible.

The gist of the plot is that the exploratory space ship USS Palomino finds the long-lost ship USS Cygnus in orbit around a black hole. ( I assume it’s named Cygnus as a nod to the black hole of Cygnus X-1, although this is mere speculation on my part.)  On board is the-black-hole-04the scenery-chewing Maximilian Schell as the kooky commander of the Cygnus–Dr. Hans Reinhardt.  He’s got a crew of robot soldiers and android workers but apparently no other human survived.  He manages to hit every mad scientist note, including having a monstrous flunky robot named Maximilian (as a nod to Schell?)  Dr. Kate McCrae (played by Yvette Mimieux) has a personal stake in the fate of the Cygnus, as her father was one of the crew. Dr. Alex Durant (played by a luckless Anthony Perkins) is the cliched naive scientist who falls under Reinhardt’s sway.  Captain Dan Holland (Robert Forster) is the square-jawed captain hero.  Lieutenant Charlie Pizer (Joseph Bottoms) is the impulsive young hero.  Harry Booth (a criminally-underutilized Ernest Borgnine) is the craven, weaselly crewmember.  Those highlights are literally all I remember about these characters.  They have as much depth as a puddle.

The other ‘actors’ are the robots VINCENT (voiced by Roddy McDowell) and BOB (voiced by Slim Pickens.)  Like Maximilian, they are hovering robots instead of walking ones.  I assume Disney did this because it looked interesting and allowed them to mimic the-black-hole-02the ‘cuteness’ of R2-D2 to some extent.  Their eyes, though, are more like anime or cartoon eyes, giving them a bit more goofiness than I think they were going for.  Maybe they were trying to balance the kind of melodrama depressing tone of the movie?  Dunno.

Anyway, turns out Dr. Reinhardt is nuttier than a fruitcake (who could have known?) and wants to go into the black hole.  Also turns out his ‘android workers’ are the lobotomized human crew of the Cygnus.  When this is discovered, Maximilian kills Durant as he tries to the-black-hole-05escape with Kate.  The rest of the crew comes to her rescue except Harry, who does the craven move and tries to escape on the Palomino and instead crashes into the Cygnus. 

The rest of the movie is the crew escaping from the haunted castle spaceship by getting on the probe ship used by Reinhardt to examine the black hole.  They try to fly off, only to discover the probe ship is locked onto the black hole.

What follows is a weird, surreal, eschatological series of scenes with Maximilian and Reinhardt merging into a Satan-like figure and the crew flying through a heavenly the-black-hole-06cathedral.

Or something like that.  It’s not as weird as the end of 2001, but it’s pretty damn weird.  The ship ends by coming out the ‘other side’ in some unknown solar system.

Again, this isn’t a terrible movie.  Mostly it’s just a lot of misfires.  There were decent ideas in it and moments of interest.  I suppose the annoying part is that there was a great deal of unused potential.

Still, it’s worth checking out at least once.

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