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Friday, December 31, 2010

Friday Film Buff: Facing the Dragon

In 1981, Disney and Paramount followed up their previous teaming on Popeye (1980) with a venture into the sword-and-sorcery genre, Dragonslayer. Far more mature than anything else that had been released under the Disney name (nudity in a Disney film?!), Dragonslayer didn't quite make its money back at the box office, and is considered a commercial failure, though it did garner a cult following in subsequent years. Disney would later start Touchstone under which to release more adult fare.
I won't kid you, this is not going to end up on my list of favorite films, but there are definitely some redeeming factors here. Sword-and-sorcery films are not exactly known for their original storylines, so, in this regard, Dragonslayer can easily be forgiven for borrowing heavily from the St. George and the Dragon mythos. The story draws inspiration from "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" sequence in Fantasia, as the protagonist (Peter MacNicol) is apprenticed to a great sorcerer played by Sir Ralph Richardson. The beguiling Caitlin Clarke is not the traditional damsel-in-distress, and "knights in shining armor" make no appearance in this film, so I'll give points for not descending to every clich√© in the book.
Peter MacNicol is enjoyable in this, his first film, though I'd read a rumor once that he is embarrassed by the film and does not include it on his resume. (Gee, Peter, I don't suppose Heat - the one with Burt Reynolds - is on there, is it?) 
However, let us come to the beast in question. The dragon is pretty darn good. Guillermo Del Toro lists this dragon Vermithrax as one of his two favorite movie dragons (the other being the Maleficent dragon in Sleeping Beauty.) In addition to an impressive design, the movement of the dragon was cutting edge in stop-motion animation employing the new technique of go motion, which uses a computer to mechanically move the model during photography. This creates motion-blur and makes the animation appear more realistic. This was basically the top level of live-action animation prior to CGI. 

Dragonslayer was justly nominated for a Best Visual Effects Oscar (but lost to Raiders of the Lost Ark.) Alex's North's impressive score also earned an Oscar nod, but lost to Chariots of Fire.
Filmed on location in North Wales and Scotland, this film is also quite visually stunning.
I find this film to be a real curiosity coming from Disney. In addition to the brief nudity, the action is pretty violent - even gruesome - for Disney. The theme of Christianity runs through the film, but it is not treated at all reverently - another curiosity.
Look for Ian McDiarmid (Senator/Emperor Palpatine) in a small role as a priest.

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