Dragonslayer (1981) — The serious side of dragon infestations

“You know, you’re an idiot. You’re going to die tonight. You’ll be ripped, limb from limb. This is the last time I’ll ever speak to you!”

Justin’s rating: Stuck in the middle with Draco

Justin’s review: I should probably say at the outset here that I am not a “Dragon Guy.” I know they’re hot stuff — no pun intended — in pop culture and geek communities alike, but I can’t really get that worked up over flying lizards with heartburn. That said, I find it really interesting how they’ve gone from (mostly) the villains of our fantasy realms to (mostly) heroic allies. My eldest son is a dragon fanatic, loving the “good” dragons of the How To Train Your Dragon and Wings of Fire series.

I try not to badmouth dragons in his presence.

It was with a mind to evaluate whether 1981’s Dragonslayer would be of any interest to a modern-era 11-year-old boy that I went into this film. You’d think that this would be an easy question to figure out, but I’m of a split opinion here. On one hand, it does have a dragon (and some dragonlings) with pretty impressive Industrial Light & Magic-produced effects. On the other hand, it’s not really any sort of adventure or fantasy quest film. It’s more like… a period drama that just so happens to have a dragon on its periphery, if that makes sense.

So there’s this ancient dragon with the intimidating name of Vermithrax Pejorative that’s terrorizing a European kingdom (the dragon is terrorizing the people; his name is simply confusing them). For a while, the kingdom’s stance has been one of “sacrifice a virgin through a lottery system” appeasement, but some people — such as the pool of sacrificable virgins — aren’t too happy with this arrangement. Thus, a call goes out to the kingdom’s only sorcerer for help.

Said sorcerer dies even before he can get started on the whole dragon thing.

Thus, a call goes out to the kingdom’s only sorcerer apprentice for help, and he’s all-too-eager to prove himself for this task. His name is Galen, and he’s played by Peter MacNicol with all of the force of his curly blond perm. Now, I can’t see MacNicol on screen and not instantly think of him as the weenie painting restorationist from Ghostbusters II, so it was an uphill battle to get me to root for him. Plus, Galen is a whole lot of bluster that’s hiding a whole lot of insecurity and inexperience, so he probably isn’t the best pick anyway.

As Galen dithers ineffectually around the kingdom’s castle, he comes into the orbit of two virgin girls. One’s a blacksmith’s daughter who’s been pretending to be a dude to get out of the lotto, and the other is the princess, who doesn’t seem to realize that only poor kids seem to get picked to be dragon chow. They form a love triangle that the movie can’t be bothered to care about.

Eventually Galen, aided by a magical amulet and a powerful spear, heads out to the dragon’s cave for the final half-hour, and there this movie blew a reported quarter of its budget on special and practical effects. It’s literally the money shot, and to be fair, it looks really good for the time. It’s a boy fighting a dragon for a while, so you can at least feel like you’re getting what you’ve shown up to see.

However, everything that came before this is a puzzle to me. There’s a lot of surprisingly nuanced looks at gender roles, class disparities, and leadership, things that are interesting but not necessarily welcome in a movie about dragons. It’s kind of as if someone stopped a Godzilla movie in the middle to shoehorn in a lecture about the relationship between trading empires in the ancient world.

What I’m trying to say is Dragonslayer isn’t very fun, and it really should have been with its subject matter. So no, I don’t think this is getting a dad-to-son recommendation — nor a reviewer-to-reader one either.

Didja notice?

  • That’s a nice Cookie Crisp outfit you’ve got on you, wizard
  • Wizards usually don’t do tests
  • Death by dragonfire is not preferable
  • Brief nudity in a Disney movie?
  • I honestly missed Hobbes once he was gone
  • Hah, he’s putting on a magic show for the royal court
  • The village priest is Star Wars’ Emperor
  • Skull on a stick!
  • Aww, adorable little baby dragon eating the princess

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