Wednesday, February 24, 2010

“You know, I've always had the greatest admiration for the black arts, you chaps with your... mysterious spells.”

I just realized its been quite a while since the last High Fantasy film (Prince Caspian, if you don't recall) in the rotation, and 1981’s Dragonslayer isn’t exactly high on whimsy, but it does have Peter MacNicol fighting a dragon. This I gotta see.

Set during the Early Medieval “Dark Ages” when Christianity was just making its first footholds in Pagan Northern Europe, we go to the fictional Kingdom of Urland that has a dragon problem. So some villagers make a long journey to a Wizard’s tower to recruit a sorcerer to deal with the beast, but in a test of power from one of the King’s men who followed, the old codger bites it. This leaves his young apprentice trying to accomplish the task and…things get messy by the end. Okay, so maybe its more Low than High Fantasy.

Galen: Peter MacNicol is our hero (yes, really), a sorcerer’s apprentice who’s not very good at the craft who suddenly discovers he can do some pretty spiffy magic after inheriting his master’s amulet. He goes on a kind of power trip that gets a few people killed. Still, the guy means well and is a fairly likable hero.

Valerian: Caitlin Clarke is introduced as on of the peasants who come calling for Ulrich’s aid. Thing is, she’s disguised as a boy because in Urland, there’s a lottery of all the virgins in the kingdom. The “winner” of the annual lottery is fed to the dragon, so that’s why Valerian’s daddy dressed her up as a boy. Anyway, she and Galen have that kind of bickering-flirting thing going on when he finds out she’s a she.

Ulrich: Ralph Rirchardson is the wise old wizard who gets offed in the beginning. However, he’s a major figure who’s shadow hovers over the movie.

Hodge: Sydney Bromley is the aged servant of Ulrich’s. He’s kind of a comic relief character for Galen to boss around for a little bit once he’s gotten his new powers.

Casiodorus Rex: Peter Eyre is the King of Urland and something of a jackass. The lottery was his idea.

Tyrian: John Hallam is Casiodorus’ general and right hand guy with a goofy wig, though he’s very clear that his loyalties are to the kingdom and not just the king. Which is all well and good, except he’s a big jerk who hates wizards because he’s convinced that the sacrificial status quo is better for the kingdom than some guy in a robe coming over and waving his arms around… Huh. You know, he’s got a point. Still, the movie makes him a big jerk.

Princess Elspeth: Chloe Salaman is the king’s daughter who takes a bit of a liking to Galen when he’s imprisoned. She’s a nice girl who’s unaware of just how big a jerk her dad is, and once she finds out that he’s been leaving her name out of the Lottery, she takes an extraordinary measure to ensure fairness.

Brother Jacopus: Ian MacDiarmid (yes, Emperor Palpatine himself) plays a very minor Christian missionary who gets roasted by the dragon when he tries to confront it himself. Its, uh, not a pretty scene.

Verminthrax Pejorative: And now the badass of the film, who exists in puppet and giant prop form. The dragon is pretty awesome most of the time, especially since you don’t see her (gender is a little iffy on the dragon as its also referred to as a he) in full for most of the movie. How badass is Verminthrax? Its last name is an adjective.

Matthew Robbins directs the film with a competent eye. The beginning has that standard 80s fantasy movie feel to it (lots of browns, goofy haircuts, a trip through a forest), but as it goes on it gets progressively darker and more epic, leading to a showdown first inside the dragon’s lair, then on top of a mountain. Without spoiling it, all I’ll say is that the idea of a “lich bomb” (my term, not theirs) is pretty awesome.

The visuals are also incredibly impressive (considering 1981) most of the time. The dragon itself is awesomely designed and the stop motion puppet is fantastic (since you had some of the guys who would later become staples at ILM), but there are issues of composition and layering during the climax that undermine the epic-ness of the scene. Its pretty obvious that the two halves of the scene are spliced together in a pretty slipshod way. Didn’t ruin the experience for me, but well, your mileage will vary.

Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins really go for Low Fantasy in this story, and I’ve got to give them credit for doing something different, especially for what’s generally a children’s film. We get some pretty gruesome deaths, the human lottery (which works exactly like that short story you read in high school) and an ending that can barely be considered happy. But its not like the movie intentionally set out to subvert all the standard fantasy tropes. Its more like the writers went “so what would really happen if a teenaged apprentice went on a slight power trip and tried to slay a dragon without any real planning or preparation?” The answer is "things would get messy."

Alex North delivers a rock solid score with some great themes.

Dragonslayer isn’t remembered much nowadays considering it failed hard at the box office. I’d heard about it and kept meaning to find it until now, and having seen it, it’s a respectable flick. Its not great in the same way that other 80s Fantasy movies are, but it definitely took risks to try something different. I liked it.

No trailer embed, but you can find it over here

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