Friday, November 22, 2019

Green Phoenix - Dragonheart Review

Dragonheart ver1.jpgLast week we covered 1998's Godzilla, directed by Roland Emmerich. I gave a very...colorful opinion on that film (especially given my love of the Godzilla franchise and Kaiju films in general). With that in mind, lets take a look at a film that on the surface should suffer from all the same flaws, but due to some very different circumstances and motivations behind the scene, comes off much stronger and remembered far more fondly.

Originally set up as "The Skin Game with a dragon in it...Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid", Dragonheart was a film which could've been the great Fantasy film that Hollywood was waiting for. The film that The Lord of the Rings would eventually become. In another universe, this film could've been directed by Richard Donner or Kenneth Branagh, but instead fell into the lap of Rob Cohen.

As I looked into the background and production of Dragonheart, what we got instead was a film where greed and studio politics kneecapped the final product yet could not completely destroy the heart behind the original story.

***
  • Directed by Rob Cohen
  • Produced by Dino De Laurentiis
  • MPAA Rating: PG
  • Running Time: 103 Minutes

***

SUMMARY

During post-Roman Britain, when the Saxons are still seeking to conquer England for themselves, a knight named Bowen, played by Dennis Quaid, finds himself the tutor and advisor for a young prince named Einon, played by David Thewlis. When an attack on some local Celts by Einon's tyrannical father results in the death of Einon's father and the mortal wounding of Einon, Bowen and Einon's mother make a deal with a dragon. The dragon agrees to give Einon half of his heart, if Bowen can promise that Einon will be a noble and just man.

After he is healed, Einon reveals himself to be a cruel and spiteful person, despite Bowen's wishes. Convinced that the dragon's heart corrupted Einon, Bowen abandons his knighthood to slay every dragon he can find.

Years pass and Bowen has gained a reputation as a notorious dragon slayer. But when he has a chance encounter with a dragon, played by Sean Connery, who he cannot defeat and claims to be the last dragon. The two strike up a strange partnership that will set them on a course with Einon that may decide the fate of not only England but of the dragons as well.


***

REVIEW

Remember last week when I went on about Godzilla? The terrible effects and strange story. This week's review will be covering a film which possesses similar qualities that, due to the time it came out and the general heart and passion behind the film, I think works infinitely better as a film and concept, even with its laughably terrible early CGI (which was considered revolutionary for its time).

For all the crap I gave Godzilla, there is just something about Dragonheart that speaks to me and leaves me with a pleasant and warm feeling.


VISUALS - 6/10

Image result for dragonheart
Well that doesn't look too bad...
Much like Jurassic Park, the character of Draco was originally going to be portrayed with practical effects, puppetry and the like using Jim Henson's Creature Shop. However, due to the release of Jurassic Park in 1993, Universal decided to hire Industrial Light & Magic, the force behind Jurassic Park, to construct the first completely CGI character in a live action film.

When it was released, Dragonheart's special effects were considered revolutionary, with Draco capable of emotional complexity on par with his live action counterpart and the film even being nominated for an Oscar for Best Visual Effects.

And after 23 years, does the CGI still hold up. Like Jurassic Park, does Draco still look like he is a real living creature.

Not one bit.

To be fair, much like Jurassic Park, Draco looks best at night, in artificial light, or in any other time where he is not in broad daylight. Unfortunately, his biggest moments tend to occur in broad daylight where he looks like he would be better suited for a PS2 game. Back when it this film came out, I'm sure it looked pretty good (which explains why I am giving it such a high visual score) but today Draco just looks kind of silly. That's a consequence of time and technology I guess.
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...never mind.

Outside of the CG dragon, the landscape and costumes are really quite extraordinary for what this film is and when it cam eout. Before Lord of the Rings, fantasy films were often strapped for cash and struggled to truly capture the breadth and scope of their world. While Dragonheart isn't as grand in scale as I think the original intention might've been, the visuals help me feel the weight they wanted just on the edge of the screen.

A little more faith in the story, a little more work or rewrites, more commitment to the goals of the film in their writer's mind; and I think Dragonheart could've been the film that jump-started the age of Fantasy that we would eventually get with the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Well...an alternate history fan can imagine.

SOUNDTRACK - 8/10

Much like the director, the film's composer changed during early production, though in this case perhaps we were better off with what we got. Originally, composer Jerry Goldsmith, the legendary mind behind the soundtracks of The Secret of NIMH, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, and First Blood (the first Rambo film) read the story and asked the director personally to write the soundtrack.

Despite this, Goldsmith never received the job. Instead, Randy Edelman was selected to helm the soundtrack's composition. And the result?

Perhaps the two most famous songs in cinematic history. "The World of the Heart" and especially "To the Stars" are among the most well known and overplayed songs in recent memory. They are used in everything. I am giving this soundtrack its score on its sheer notoriety. I'm going to just play it. I know you've heard this song. Listen and enjoy.

Now onto the next section.

CHARACTERS - 6/10

The cast of Dragonheart is incredible for its time period, though in one case that might actually be to the film's disadvantage. Dennis Quaid plays the irascible and emotionally distant Bowen and you really feel his pain throughout the film, as well as the noble desires and inclinations at the heart of his character. While not every line he delivers falls on a bulls-eye (especially the King Arthur conversation), I still feel that Quaid does a more than adequate performance.

Now Sean Connery as Draco. On the surface having one of the most famous actors of his generation playing your deutragonist and one of the first fully CGI characters sounds amazing. But Connery is one of the most famous actors on Earth because of his distinct voice and accent, which can be incredibly distracting when I try to immerse myself in the world of Draco...and can only hear James Bond or Indiana Jones' father. You end up caring for the character and Connery's performance is incredibly heartwarming and charismatic, but there is always an ever present disconnect in knowing that Draco is played by one of the most famous actors alive.

Image result for pete postlethwaite dragonheart
A romance with all the chemistry of Neon gas.
As for the rest of the cast, David Thewlis (who most modern audiences will recognize as Remus Lupin from the Harry Potter franchise) is an effective, if rather one note, villain. I feel like there could've been a real opportunity to explore his villainy and motivations more clearly, but it seems like almost everything he does is primarily motivated by cruelty. In a lot of ways, I feel like characters like Joffrey Baratheon or Ramsey Bolton were inspired by Einon and similarly cruel historical characters as well. Beyond Thewlis, we have Pete Postlethwaite as the monk following Bowen around, who is both comic relief and the role of narrator. And its Postlethwaite, so you know that he is amazing.


But everyone else, is just kind of there. The romantic lead is rather forgettable. I actually forgot at first that she is responsible for kicking the plot in motion, she leaves so little of an impact at first. To say nothing of the chemistry between her and Bowen. I do feel like there is a strong cast here, but most are too recognizable to be isolated from their character, too simplified to allow more moral complexity (which I feel was one element that might have made the mystery behind the plot more defined), or leaving no impression at all. I think I've actually forgotten some of the characters even in the time it took me to write this review.

So in summation, a strong cast of actors, but hollow roles or mismatched performances keep it from rating too high.

STORY - 6/10

I get the feeling, after having read interviews by the original writer for the film (who was eventually cut from the project by Universal and receives only nominal credit) that his original vision of the film would've been a more noble and personal film, with a grander vision at its heart. When I read things like this and I ponder the possibilities, what we ended up with his rather disheartening.
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I see King Einon went to the Commodus school of sword-fighting.
There are elements of the story which are quite nice and enjoyable to be honest. But others? Random sudden plot points, characters taking stupid pills, strange disjointed moments that feel like they needed more time to develop naturally. I wish we focused more on the relationship between Bowen and Draco, as I feel like that would've made Draco's ultimate fate more emotionally impactful. It still has impact, but that is more from Connery's strength as an actor mixed Edelman's amazing "To the Stars"score.

Ultimately, I feel this film needed more time for its characters, a larger scope for its theming and narrative, and more character moments to really create the epic fantasy adventure that the original writer intended to create.

FINAL THOUGHTS

I love this movie, despite its flaws. I recognize that it is, fundamentally, a product of its time. A product of an age when fantasy films didn't pay and were never properly funded. This film had almost everything going for it, and even in its own time, was lauded by critics and audiences for its effects but panned for the story.

It just wasn't possible before The Lord of the Rings to make a commercially successful blockbuster fantasy film. Dragonheart could've been absolutely incredible, but I feel like perhaps it came out too early and in the wrong environment. As a result, it was limited in its effects, its performances, its funding, and most importantly its story.

What it has is wonderful, but a campy kind of wonderful. I see a missed opportunity and hope that Universal might take a look at this property in the future and provide a real, more effective reboot of the property; instead of super cheap crappy sequels.

VISUALS
  • 6/10
SOUNDTRACK
  • 8/10
CHARACTERS
  • 6/10
STORY
  • 6/10

 FINAL SCORE - 6.5/10

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