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Tuesday
Jun242014

Tues Top Ten: Movie Dragons

The Podcast didn't help. The more I linger on How To Train Your Dragon 2 the less love I realize I have for it. This is not to say that it's not worth seeing -- it's good. I just wanted it to be great since I hold the original in such high esteem. The animation is truly impressive and some sequences provoke awe in a way that nothing else in the theater does at the moment outside of a few scenes in Godzilla. But plotwise the third act just doesn't work for me. I don't like the alpha-male 'you have no choice to obey' conceit... which feels like a betrayal of the first movie's very particular and atypical action movie triumphs. But I still want to see it again for reasons of DRAGONS!!!

So for today's list...

THE TEN BEST DRAGONS IN THE MOVIES
(Disclaimer: I did not see The Desolation of Smaug and have no plans to)

10 The Eborsisk in Willow (1988)
Around the web you can find a few references to this two-headed dragon (which was done with puppetry - puppets are the best) that label it a 'homage' to Siskel & Ebert, then very much the power duo of film critics. But that's rewriting history. At the time it was a diss since George Lucas was no fan of theirs. Willow is a lot of fun across the board except those stupid thumbelina sized people, the 'comic relief'. 

09 Falkor in The Never Ending Story (1984)
I don't remember this movie well at all. In fact, just about the only thing I remember was that I was really in love with it when I was much younger. But now I don't remember why. But it brought me joy then so I figured I owed it to him. And to whoever thought up a dog-like "luckdragon", more cuddly than fearsome, long before the cat-like Toothless, I salute you. 

8 more mythological beasties after the jump

08 Madame Mim in The Sword in the Stone (1963)

We said no dragons!

Madame Mim does not play fair in her shape-shifting comic battle with Merlin, the highlight of this lesser Disney effort. But Merlin's revenge is visually funny - this dragon doesn't know what hit her - and the animators provided exceptional personality for Mim in her every incarnation.

07 King Ghidorah/Mecha Ghidorah in Godzilla vs. King Ghidorah (1991)
Because three heads are better than two (sorry Eborsisk) and in the summer of Godzilla you have to have this formidable foe.

06 Vermithrax in Dragonslayer (1981)
For nostalgia reasons: This is the first dragon I ever remember seeing at the movies as a kid and I l-o-v-e-d it despite being terrified. I tried to watch it recently on Netflix but I'd forgotten about my Peter MacNicol allergy so I didn't make it very far in. But damn that dragon was scary and they didn't shy away from her bloody violence what with maiden sacrifices (who aren't rescued!) fed to her dragon babies ON CAMERA and all.

 


05 Toruk in Avatar (2009)
Every sequence involving the dragon-like beasts in the biggest hit of all time from the initial cliff climb to the training to that daring leap onto the Toruk (aka the Great Leonopteryx) is mesmerizing. Plus it makes Jake Sully a Toruk Makto and thus he becomes way cooler. This movie sometimes gets a bad rap but I'll never forget the first and second time seeing it - still the most impressive iMAX 3D experience ever.


04 饒速水琥珀主 "Haku" in Spirited Away (2001)
Sure most of the time Nigihayami Kohakunushi (nickname Haku) the river god looks like a teenage boy but in his powerful dragon form he is beautifully graceful and Eastern in this animated classic from Hayao Miyazaki. This needs to go on the "rewatch" list.

03 玉嬌龍 in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (2000)
Sure, Zhang Ziyi's "Jen" is only a figurative dragon but she flies, she's unexpectedly deadly and she's the quickest and most agile dragon the movies ever saw outside of animation. It helps to be made of flesh and blood and lithe muscle and not from weightless computer pixels, jerky stop-motion, or elaborate puppetry. Bonus Points: She stars in the greatest film ever made with "dragon" in the title. 

02 Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty (1959)
She's only a dragon for a short time and this transformation proves to be her undoing but go out with a bang and not a whimper, right? This is one of the scariest transformations in cinema and the sorceress even punctuates it with some frighteningly direct shout out to demonic black magic. Disney has since defanged their greatest villain (sigh) but if the magnificent animated Maleficent ever met Angelina Jolie, the otherwise formidable movie star would be toast. Burnt, nay, charred toast.

01 Toothless in How To Train Your Dragon franchise (2010-2014)
Let's pretend he didn't become some sort of ridiculously powerful King of Dragons in the sequel and admire him for what he once was: the cutest dragon of all time that also just happened to be the only known living Night Fury, among the deadliest and rarest of dragon breeds. The only thing more powerful than his blue laser kill shot is his ability to magically remind every single living person of a) every wounded bird (figurative) they've ever wanted to help heal and b) their most cherished pet (literal). 

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Reader Comments (18)

Great list and number 3 made me lol. Although you need a big disclaimer re: not seeing Smaug in the hobbit films. With that said, there's no way he would ever replace your number 1 :).

June 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnonny

anonny - but i did put in a disclaimer!

June 24, 2014 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I agree totally with your assessment of How to Train Your Dragon 2: I left the movie thinking: did I just watch a movie about great man-ery, in which everyone else is reduced to helpless victims/mindless followers subject to the will of their all-powerful leaders? Did it really just have a "you can't reason with this person and war is necessary and morally good" villain plot line? Are we celebrating as innovative the fact that a son of a chief became chief and the most powerful and rare of all dragons became, you guessed it, the most powerful of all dragons? But, oh, they're both injured and sensitive so..... Eh. It actually makes an interesting double feature with Edge of Tomorrow, in which the hero is similarly battle-averse but redeemed through war, and it shares complete indifference for the enemy, with the pub scene where Cruise just literally yells "they're here and there winning!" So who cares about anything else: kill kill kill. Couple this with the invading Europe imagery and the fact that they are called "mimics" (for no explained reason) and for me it added up to a totally ugly and uncomfortable immigration parable. The takeaway from both movies was that men can become manly and heroic in war and it doesn't matter whom/why they are fighting because the enemy is just EVIL. Dangerous jingoism if you ask me, especially for a children's movie.

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercatbaskets

Yay, dragons! Let's play Daenerys for a day!

My top 10 dragons would be:

01. Falkor - I love the movie, one of my favorites as a kid, and I love the big cuddly furry dragon, kinda like a giant Labrador retriever that can fly and terrorize your bullies. Every wallflower kid should have one.

02. Meryl Streep in Doubt - "The dragon is hungry" jokes Father Flynn after Sister Aloysious whiskers a bewildered boy from the school patio for a shake-up. Poor Father Flynn had no idea who the dragon was hungry for. This is likely one of Meryl's most divisive performances, but I am firmly on the camp of those who LOVE it. I'd given her the Oscar that year, that's how much I am fond of her larger than life embodiment of a contradictory creature that is relentless, merciless, fearless and, in spite of that facade of conviction, ultimately lost and misguided.

03. Bruce Lee - Big fan of all his movies, and after becoming more familiar with his life story and visiting his museum in Hong Kong, I have become a big fan of man as well. A top notch guy, disciplined, ethical and loved to dance the cha cha, which is both totally random and absolutely endearing.

04. Maleficent in Sleeping Beauty - Now shall you deal with me, o Prince, and all the powers of HELL!!! (proceeds to turn into giant black dragon of death spitting green wildfire like no one's business). This was the point where she won me over. Woman's clearly put some effort on acquiring her black magic skills. F*ck it! Let her take the castle and eat everyone in it.She's most certainly the only character in the story who's earned it.

05. The badass dragons in Reign of Fire - Do I get my TFE Readership Card revoked if I fess up this tropey dragon adventure is my favorite Christian Bale movie? (American Psycho comes a close second and Velvet Goldmine rounds up the top 3). I shamefully admit to loving everything in it. Even pre-McConnaissance Matthew McConaughey. The bit where he has water in his flask cracks me up every time. And the dragons are pure hokey CGI joy, spitting fire all over. Beefcake and barbecue, what's not to love?

06. The Witch King of Angmar and his wyvern dragon - I'm a big fan of the original LofR trilogy and a sucker for a great visually menacing villain. I just love that wraith riding along the air on top his powerful beast, the shadow on the ground foretelling the terror coming from the skies. That shrill dragon cry that chills the spine combined with its Master's deep spectral voice that sounds like it comes from the deepest pits of Hell makes it aurally as terrifying as it is visually.

07. Mushu in Mulan - One of my favorite Disney movies and one of the great unsung comic relief sidekicks in the Disney canon. Mushu is everything a dragon is NOT supposed to be, and his partnership with Mulan of well-intented misfits in over their heads hoping to defy the odds is the colorful heart of the movie

08. Haku in Spirited Away - Noble, beautiful, courageous, loyal, caring. Much like Mulan and Mushu, Haku and Chihiro are an unlikely pairing, but what Mushu brings in irreverence, Haku offers in earnest fortitude. His and Chihiro's journey are essentially distinct but unexpectedly interconnected and I am right there along with them for that wonderful ride.

09. Ralph Fiennes in The Red Dragon - The third villain on the list. Fourth if you consider the wild dragons of Reign of Fire, which are not villainous per si, but fill the role of antagonists on the story. Fifth, if you believe Father Flynn's innocence. There's just something scary and creepy and cool about dragons that makes them so suitable to villainous roles. This movie is at best an ok movie. Definitely step up from the debacle of Hannibal, but nowhere near the excellence of Silence of the Lambs. Still, I love certain aspects of Ralph Fiennes performance very dearly, especially its physicality. The scene where he takes his clothes off to reveal the Red Dragon tattooed body, waiting his metamorphosis, offers a powerful visual insight into the killer's maniacal psyche and a fresh reminder of how great Fiennes can be as a physical presence, which, despite his gorgeous looks and willingness to shapeshift, is a gift underused in his filmography.

10. Smaug - The best thing of an overblown, hokey, mercenary adaptation of a lovely book. What the original trilogy has of wonder and nobility, the Hobbit cash cow has of poor taste and gratuitous bloat. Still, the moments lifted straight out of the books seem to elevate the movie for a few scenes, and even the added chase of the dwarves inside the mountain is at least spectacularly rended and the best use of CGI Peter Jackson has to offer. Smaug nearly defeated, covered on liquid gold: a little on the nose as metaphors go, but what a gorgeous spectacle of Red scale and golden drops. Talk about an easy pick for the Hit Me With Your Best Shot series! ;)

Next, let's do bunnies!

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCarmen Sandiego

@Carmensandiego that is a hell of a list. The Witch King's dragon (YES, such elegant spectrality to match its rider) and Mushu. And you're right, Smaug was the only thing in the series so far that conjured up any of that haunting magical thrill from the trilogy, not to mention the only piece of non-tacky and uncanny valley shit CGI. If Nathaniel cares, the final clip of him is probably on YouTube, and it's worth the 10-20 minutes or so if you don't have much going on. "I am FIRE. I am DEATH."

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercaroline

Trivia: In Asian culture, a "Dragon" is the King/Emperor. Or anyone with royal blood. But that's a totally different list...

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnthony Mai

God, I too have a Peter MacNicol allergy. He alone ruined Sophie's Choice for me, plus he had sex with Meryl!
I too think that Mushu should be included here.
Laughing out loud in that Meryl in Doubt thing.
Confession: I've never seen HTTYD.

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered Commentercraver

no love for Mushu? I mean, it is a typical Disney sidekick, but deserves a mention for this particular list.

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterkin

Mushu is pure fun.
He'd definitely make my top 10.
And Queen Narissa (Susan Sarandon) in "Enchanted".
Big.
Blue.
Beautiful.
So great when she grabs Robert (Patrick Dempsey) instead of Giselle (Amy Adams).
"Okay, I'm flexible."

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSonja

Dragons are my absolute FAVORITE! I have always loved them, and I collect them.

Love the Disney shout-outs - I've always loved The Sword in the Stone and Madam Mim hardly ever gets her due as a great comic villain.

I would have included the dragons from Reign of Fire, which are terrifyingly real-looking most of the time (and the movie is pretty terrific), Mushu from Mulan (just for variety's sake - and he's funny), Smaug (the movie is a total meh, but MAN did they deliver on the dragon!), and (the biggest omission from your list) the magnificent, Sean Connery-voiced Draco from Dragonheart. Actually, Draco might even have been my number 1 over Toothless, mostly because of the dulcet tones of that voice. He's pretty much perfect.

I love How to Train...2 pretty much unreservedly at this point. The Alpha Dragon thing was glossed over a bit in the first one, but was present, so it didn't feel like it came out of nowhere to me, and while I didn't love that the film sidelined Astrid and seemed to do a 180 with Valka's character in the third act, I didn't mind it because in the end it's Hiccup's story and always has been. I like that the series extols the virtue of love over hate, and brains over brawn, which doesn't happen all that often in "boy movies".

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Falcor! Falcor! Falcor! I was obsessed with dragons when I was little. My dad used to tell me long stories about Falcor (I pronounced it "Valcor"), a female dragon named Felix, and two baby dragons, Jupiter and Samantha. It's been decades since I've seen the movie, so at this point I can't remember where Dad's stories end and the actual plot of The Neverending Story begins. Still, I have nothing but fond memories of _The Neverending Story_, even if those memories are false.

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

What about Eliot in Pete's Dragon? I loved the movie as a kid and watched it a few years ago and still loved it. Without looking it up, this is what I remember: "He has the head of a camel, the neck of a crocodile, and ears of a cow. He's both a fish and a mammal, and I hope he never changes. Because it's not easy to find magic in pairs. It's not easy to find someone who cares . . ."

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJeff

denny - i actually like REIGN OF FIRE but hadn't seen it in so long and my memories of that movie are of Bale & McConaughey and not the dragons, weirdly.

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Harryhausen's dragon from " The 7th Voyage of Simbad" (1958) and the seven headed hydra from "Jason and the Argonauts ' (1963

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Jeff--YES! Eliot is the dude! I have seen this movie many times, and it has an infectious spirit all its own. The music is wonderful. I got the DVD for my 4-year-old niece and she watches it over and over.

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Thanks for the "Avatar" shoutout! Sure it isn't the best movie ever, but you can bet I'll be there in IMAX 3D on opening night for "Avatar 2". The world they created was absolutely stunning.

June 25, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

Smaug goes straight to number 1 - so much PERSONALITY. Most 3-dimensional character in that over-long film.

June 26, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

I am astounded you have not added Draco of Dragonheart or Saphira of Eragon. You added so many wyverns (and hydras) that aren't truly "dragons" in my honest opinion. Tsk. No, Eragon did no justice to the book, but as a stand-alone, it did a good job between the cast and the CG. Dragonheart may be called cheesy or "bad" by the uneducated, but overall, it is still the best dragon movie ever, hands down. The CG is astounding for a movie made and 1996 and there was a lot of story behind everything they did. How to Train is a good set, and I love it (haven't seen the second one yet, too broke), but so many lists go without Draco and comments cry for Smaug (of the new movies). Smaug is great, but again, he is a wyvern in the new movies, unlike the fire drake he is supposed to be (the Rankin and Bass cartoon version illustrated this well, even with his cat-like head). Also, speaking of Rankin and Bass, you could include the ones from their movies such as Flight of Dragons, The Last Unicorn (it was a brief shot before the prince kills it), or even their version of the Lord of the Rings (though the naz'gul are technically not dragons).

(Yes, a shoutout to the commenter "denny" for saying Draco [and the Reign of Fire "kites"] before me. I felt I needed to expand more.)

Thanks though!

August 1, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterEmraliya

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