The Last Dragonslayer (2016)

2016 #195
Jamie Stone | 101 mins | download (HD) | 2.00:1 | UK / English

The Last DragonslayerI’m not sure whether to commend or condemn Sky1 for having the balls to schedule a light family-friendly fantasy drama against Doctor Who on Christmas Day — that seems like damning yourself to low ratings. But then Sky never exactly stands at the pinnacle of the charts, and, in the catch-up-driven landscape of modern TV, does it even matter? I mean, as if to show their disregard for schedules, the premiere broadcast was actually at 3am the night before.

Anyway: adapted from the novel by Jasper Fforde (the first in a series, as will eventually become clear), The Last Dragonslayer is the story of Jennifer Strange (Ellise Chappell), a teenage orphan living in the Ununited Kingdom (a name never uttered on screen, perhaps for fear of looking like political commentary in the current climate). This is an alternate-world Britain where magic exists but is on the wane — it’s powered by dragons, but they’re dying out; besides which, the public have become more enamoured with things like technology and supermarkets. Adopted by the kindly wizard Zambini (Andrew Buchan), Jennifer learns about the importance of magic, and the importance of dragons to magic, which is a bit of a problem when the country’s seers have a mass vision that the last dragon will be slain on Sunday, and shortly thereafter Jennifer discovers her long-prophesied role as the last official dragonslayer.

Jennifer StrangeAbout now you’re probably thinking The Last Dragonslayer is completely derivative of every other major young-adult fantasy franchise of the last… well, forever. It’s hard to deny that the plot is, at least in its broadest thematic strokes, a pretty familiar affair. What makes the enterprise worthwhile is its humorous execution. This isn’t a spoof of the genre, more a satirical mash-up of familiar fantasy building blocks and modern life. So, for example, the king’s chief knight is also a pop star, followed around by a gaggle of adoring female fans; when Jennifer finds herself in need of money, her dragonslaying assistant signs a sponsorship deal with soft drink brand Fizzipop that requires her to film an advert, make at least two promotional appearances, and wear a branded T-shirt until the dragon is slain. It’s this whimsical slant on our world that is arguably Dragonslayer’s most successful aspect.

Another would be its characters. Chappell makes Jennifer a capable hero without having to resort to the kind of self-serious moping that dogs so many current young adult leads (Katniss, I’m looking at you). Buchan also gets to move away from the moping that’s so often called for in series like Broadchurch, making the affectionate, skilful Zambini an easily likeable character within just a few deceptively simple scenes. Without meaning to spoil the plot, he’s not in it enough. The slack is taken up by the likes of Pauline Collins and Ricky Tomlinson as a pair of batty magicians, Matt “Toast” Berry as the immature monarch, and Anna Chancellor as the smarmy corporate head of supermarket giant Stuff Co. The only weak like for me was Richard E. Grant as the voice of Maltcaisson, the last dragon — it just didn’t feel like he had the vocal presence to be playing a huge majestic beast. But not everyone can be John Hurt or Benedict Cumberbatch, I suppose.

Dragon breathI guess The Last Dragonslayer’s irreverent, sometimes silly tone won’t be to all tastes, but I enjoyed it very much. Unsurprisingly (all things considered) the book is the first in a series, and so not everything is fully resolved by the film’s end. Let’s hope that, in spite of their scheduling, it’s done well enough for Sky that sequels are forthcoming.

4 out of 5

How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

2015 #45
Dean DeBlois | 102 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

Four years ago, DreamWorks’ How to Train Your Dragon came as a pleasant surprise: a film I thought looked weak in almost every respect, but which turned out to be immensely entertaining and beautifully made. This sequel has the opposite level of expectation, then, but fortunately it’s (mostly) up to the task.

Part of its success stems from being bold with the concept. Rather than just rehashing the first film’s story, or taking it in only a slightly different direction, returning writer-director Dean DeBlois (his former co-director, Chris Sanders, having moved on to fellow DreamWorks hit The Croods) jumps the story forward five years, in the process changing the status quo of the film’s world enough to keep it fresh. So whereas the last movie ended with dragon-hating vikings having some kind of grudging acceptance of the titular bewinged creatures, here those dragons have been fully integrated into viking society; and the teenage heroes have been aged up to be young adults.

The latter, in particular, necessitates some great design work to age the younger characters appropriately. It’s the kind of thing that looks obvious in retrospect, but it isn’t — how many animations can you think of that have to reimagine their characters as slightly older; enough to make a notable difference, but not as extreme as, say, turning them from young children to adults, or from middle-aged to very old? I can’t think of any. Nonetheless, the team here have done a faultless job. That applies to the film’s visuals on the whole. It looks gorgeous in every way: the design, the animation, the construction of the digital world, the lighting… and so on.

Tonally, DeBlois has been productively inspired by The Empire Strikes Back: it’s still child-friendly, but nonetheless more mature, and with some striking emotional beats. The main plot — concerning an army that enslaves dragons, vs. our hero vikings who live alongside them — is a little hit and miss, with some construction issues (which I’ll come back to). The characters and their emotional arcs, however, are more consistently realised, sometimes with a less-is-more approach. For instance, it’s quite nice that DeBlois doesn’t introduce needless jeopardy into the romance between Hiccup and Astrid: they’re just a couple, and happy — that’s not rammed home, nor do they quarrel over nothing; they don’t split up only to inevitably get back together. Such beats are overworked and over-familiar, and the film has enough else going on not to bother with some fake-out relationship trouble. However, challenging the relationship between Hiccup and his dragon Toothless, even if only briefly, is a much more emotionally rewarding thread to pull. Of course, to say how it’s challenged would be a gigantic spoiler, so I’ll leave it at that.

The first film quickly and effectively sketched a largish supporting cast, and they’re deftly used again here. Their parts may be doled out in snippets — a couple of lines here, a short scene there — but they build subplots and comic relief, and pay them off too, all without shifting the focus too heavily on to things that fundamentally don’t matter. Perhaps this is, in part, the benefit of a starry voice cast (where the supporting players are bigger names than the leads!)

If there’s a flaw, it’s in some of the new characters. The primary villain is underused, introduced too late in the game to become a palpable threat. More time spent building him up, seeing his evil on screen rather than just being told about it, would’ve been appreciated. So too for the mysterious vigilante dragon-rider, who turns out to have a very significant role. The deleted scenes include a prologue that would have introduced the character at the start, which would have better established the mystery and import of their role. It’s clear why it was deleted (to focus on Berk and keep the initial tone light), but I still think it would’ve worked better in the film. In the final cut, the vigilante is mentioned all of once, then turns up and is unmasked about two minutes later. Really, though, these are niggles — even for them, the cumulative consistency is certainly better than, say, its Oscar conquerer Big Hero 6.

To make another inter-film comparison, on balance I’d say that the first Dragon is probably better, but there’s little between them — they’re just different. By pushing the world and the characters in new, interesting, more emotionally mature directions, this is a sequel that ensures there’s a welcome freshness to proceedings. Too many animated films skimp on that side of things, but thought and care has been put into making this a worthwhile continuation rather than a cash-in re-hash.

4 out of 5

Dragonslayer (1981)

2010 #73
Matthew Robbins | 104 mins | TV | PG / PG

Back when he was still directing The Hobbit, Guillermo del Toro spoke a bit about his plans for Smaug, the dragon antagonist of Tolkien’s tale. Talking about the lack of “landmark” designs for dragons, there was one he did single out (I’ll give you one guess which it was)…

One of the best and one of the strongest landmarks that almost nobody can overcome is Dragonslayer. The design of the Vermithrax Pejorative is perhaps one of the most perfect creature designs ever made.

Indeed, the realisation of the spellcheck-bothering dragon is definitely one of the film’s high points. It’s an impressive creation, brought to the screen in those wonderful pre-CGI days through a total of 16 puppets, which included a 40-foot hydraulic model and the first use of “go-motion”, a computerised version of stop-motion designed to add motion blur. Of course it has that veneer of ’80s effects work, which is either nostalgic or amateurish depending on your point of view (and, most likely, age). Some of it looks expectedly dated — it’s nearly 30 years old after all, and hasn’t benefitted from the attention lavished on the likes of Star Wars (even discounting all the CGI Lucas has pumped into that) — but largely it remains effective.

Vermithrax Pejorative is a long time coming, however, wisely kept off screen by director Matthew Robbins. It’s not that the monster shouldn’t be revealed, just that, like Alien, it carries more power when glimpsed in parts and flashes, and the wait to see it builds the tension. It’s worth the wait, and it’s not as if the rest of the film is worthless.

Aesthetically, it’s got that nicely dirty, realistic feel to its depiction of the Dark Ages, which has been rather lost as swisher filming techniques have come along to make everything oh-so-stylised, particularly in genres like fantasy. The rough, practical effects add to this feel, in a way CGI is unlikely to do (not that it couldn’t, I’m sure, but it would have to be exceptionally well managed and I can’t think of an example).

A very young-looking Peter MacNicol leads the cast, being sporadically (shall we say, kindly) fresh. He’s been better served in character roles since. According to IMDb he’s embarrassed by the film and doesn’t include it on his CV. Particularly when one considers the kind of work he does now, it’s quite easy to see why. Being a US-produced medieval-ish fantasy film, everyone is English — except the two leads, of course. They’re all fine but, like every high-concept fantasy blockbuster, this is more about the adventuresome hijinks and giant monster than character development. Similarly, an interesting subplot about the move from The Old Ways of magic and superstition to The New Ways of Christianity feels like a good idea that hasn’t been fully integrated, made up of little more than a couple of passing nods and a negatively-inclined inclusion in the coda.

Dragonslayer is a little scrappy, in a way — the narrative, the acting, the effects — and yet, for that, it’s a minor treat. I don’t know what The Youth Of Today would think of it, but as someone who in his childhood watched many examples of this kind of film on video from the small rental place in town — films like The Princess Bride, The NeverEnding Story; you could even include big-hitters like the Star Warses or Ghostbusters — it fits nostalgically into that era. And there’s a lot to be said for nostalgia.

4 out of 5