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The Other: The Deal with Dragons

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Wednesday, Mar 21, 2007


With the anemic Eragon hitting DVD the week of 20 March, perhaps it’s time to ponder the problem with dragons. Not as mythic beasts, mind you. No, few fictional entities are as intrinsically interesting as these winged lizards. From their symbolic battle with St. George to the numerous kid vid variations of same, the fire-breathing baddie should be a sensationally cinematic being. After all, it can fly, it has all the inherent horror of a dangerous dinosaur and – as long as you believe what fantasy fiction has to offer – can help guide the naïve and unappreciated toward the coming of age they’re so desperately in need of. But when 2002’s Reign of Fire is the best your beast can get, it’s time to give the whole folklore a much needed kick in the creativity.


Actually, that’s not wholly correct. Peter Jackson gave the terrifying creatures a decent cinematic shout out when he melded them seamlessly into his epic Lord of the Rings battles, and there are many who still have a warm place in their heart for Disney’s 1981 effort Dragonslayer. Heck, even Harry Potter did a bang up job of bringing the fiend to the forefront. But thanks to fabulous disasters such as Dragonheart, Willow, and the notorious role-playing rot of Dungeons and Dragons, the rampaging reptile from tales of yore has become a snooze-inducing varmint that can’t quite decide if it’s cute, cuddly, sensible or just stupid.


Thanks to Christopher Paolini’s pathetic Inheritance Trilogy, of which Eragon is the first installment, dragons have once again found themselves on the short end of the entertainment stick. In this case, our farmboy hero becomes one of his land’s legendary ‘riders’, with an oversized Jiminy Cricket – a blue beast named Saphira – guiding him through the ins and outs of such a status. Naturally, there is a despotic king that requires overthrowing, an Alex Guinness like sage ready to test our hero’s unmolded mantle, a wispy young elf girl that needs saving, and a rebellious horde desperate for a sign that there is some salvation from their present state of persecution. Along with a sinister sorcerer who resembles a granny gone gangrenous, Eragon stinks like a pile of oversized bat guano.


But it’s the depiction of dragons in this dreck that really seals the deal. Paolini develops his own arcane mythology here, tying beast to rider in a weird, almost symbiotic way. If you kill a dragon, the human partner can live on. Kill the man, and the beast dies as well. This means that dragons, at least in this world, are not independent entities, capable of their own mindless mayhem. Instead, they are anthropomorphic weaponry, their potential majesty reduced to nothing more than a tank with wings. In addition, the narrative requires that the creature speak. Using the lamest of creative conceits – telepathy – the dragon is given a calm, cooing voice (provided by Oscar winner Rachel Weisz) and, as stated before, dishes out common sense platitudes in an attempt to direct her dimwitted charge.


Gone are the ferocious sequences of unbridled carnage. Missing are the moments when man succumbs to the beast’s destructive talons of hate. In their place is the machismo version of a unicorn, a touchy feely monster with a head full of Confucius-like proverbs. It’s the same thing that happened with the Dennis Quaid/Sean Connery cock-up Dragonheart. Again, another English speaking (or make that Scottish broguing) lizard is required to guide a disillusioned knight toward a final battle against – you guessed it – a demented and dictatorial king. Seems that whenever a ruler runs ramshackle over a meandering Middle Earth backdrop, geckos with the carriage of a DC-10 have to show up to set things right. Sadly, they also seem to require the less than helpful aid of a human sidekick to complete the deal.


As a one time wonder inducing work of fiction, dragons have never really gotten the cinematic celebration they deserve. Go back as far as Fritz Lang’s Das Nibelungen, when special effects were in their infancy and even then, our scaly scallywags don’t get the merit they warrant. In the sequence where the heroic Siegfried battles said legendary lizard, the mechanized monster looks more silly than sinister. Sure, it’s a marvel of turn of the century engineering, but as a symbol of a Medieval mayhem maker, it looks like a theme park attraction about to throw a rod. Something similar happens in Bert I. Gordon’s The Magic Sword. There, our creature is merely a mediocre flame thrower stuffed inside a pile of moldy carpet. It’s sad but true – point to any example of the dragon in the last 100 years of motion picture history and you’ll find something that’s either stunted by stop motion, mocked by miniaturization, or inert thanks to a lack of ingenuity.


For some reason, dinos had the same dilemma. All throughout their theatrical track record, they remained lumbering and ludicrous. Either actual chameleons were cast in their roles, large plastic fins crazy-glued onto their backs for that perfect prehistoric look, or Ray Harryhausen and artists of his ilk painstakingly recreated the Mesozoic era with clay, metal armature, and months working on a scaled down set. But all that changed with Jurassic Park. Suddenly, what seemed old fashioned and flat was given a new computerized luster. Though revisionist history can and will carp about the film’s flaws all it wants, no one can deny the wonder inspired by the T-Rex attack, or the superb suspense of the Raptor/kitchen rampage. Whatever its final merits, Steven Spielberg and his buddies over at ILM reconfigured the archaic creature into a new, 20th century star.


What the dragon needs is some of Mr. ET‘s filmic refashioning – and making them noble creatures with the tempting voices of a sexy superstar doesn’t count. No, the ideal story needs to be melded to the perfect director, all of it filtered through a desire for invention and creative possibilities. As noted before, the closest anyone has come is Rob Bowman’s Reign of Fire. Beginning with a brilliant premise – the mistaken discovery of ancient dragon eggs in London leads, very quickly, to a worldwide epidemic of the flying killing machines – it was an effort ultimately undermined by budgetary and demographic concerns. Still, the narrative follow through was intriguing, with the wasteland elements of the post-apocalyptic world nicely contrasted with the survivors’ desire for an end to the mayhem. But again, the beast takes a backseat to Hollywood heavyweights (Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey) running around in expertly decimated art designed backdrops.


Certainly there are examples when, featured in a minor or meaningless role, the dragon has persevered. But the cruel fact remains that, as potential stars of their own fantasy or fright film franchise, the scourge of every knight and squire from Camelot to the land of Ilya Muromets, our wannabe fear factor is a dud. And thanks to pathetic examples of moviemaking mediocrity like Eragon, it’s a fair bet that it will remain a wallflower in the world of creature features. How this can happen, with all that a fire-breathing terror with the ability to soar high above the populace has to offer, is a mystery that a wizard may not be able to solve. It is obvious that, by and large, writers and directors haven’t.

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