RETROREVIEWS #19: HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010)

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MAY 26, 2013 SCREENING: HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010)

 

How to Train Your Dragon is one film that I was really looking forward to, and selected it specifically as the final “dragon” themed movie in my fantasy film marathon so it would go out with a bang. Everything leading up to the screening sounded great. How to Train Your Dragon had near universal praise when it was released, earning a 98% overall “fresh” rating when all the critics reviews were averaged on Rotten Tomatoes. It was also a huge hit. Not only have two sequels already been announced, they even started doing direct-to-video spinoffs to cash in on the movie’s success. It was made by DreamWorks, and they have an virtually impeccable record as the alternate to Disney & Pixar for 3D CGI kids movies. The movie looked intriguing too – with a boy standing alone in the twilight, looking up in awe as he touches a stoic majestic dragon beast for the first time (even if the dragon looks more like a snake in that poster). No matter what, I was certain, this would be a good movie.

 

I hated this movie.

 

Yes, you read that right. In fact, this may be the ONLY place on the internet, or maybe even on the planet, where you will find a review with the same words. Even in the extreme minority of critics who shared my opinion that this movie was not good (I counted only three on Rotten Tomatoes), the resulting review was more along the lines of “Meh, this movie was okay but could have been more creative and bold”, rather than a “this movie sucks and there’s nothing worthwhile about it” reaction that I had after seeing the movie. Anyone out there who’s reading this now might very well think “this guy has either lost his mind or all credibility by giving a negative review to this awesome movie”. However, if the point of a film blog is to give readers an honest opinion and something they haven’t heard before, I have to tell you flat out: I found nothing good about How to Train Your Dragon. If I’m the lone person to hate this movie, so be it. How to Train Your Dragon is NOT recommended and here is why:

 

The premise of the movie is about a Viking village from the dark ages that is being plagued by dragons stealing their livestock. So far, so good. Minutes into the movie however, “Vikings” begin to speak, and for some completely unknown and bizarre reason, all the Viking men sound like Groundskeeper Willie from The Simpsons or Scotty on Star Trek. Now, I’m well aware this is a fantasy film about imaginary creatures that is aimed at children. Never-the-less, if you’re going to use something from the “real world” like a “viking village”, you have to stick to basic logic about what that place would be like. Happy Feet is about talking penguins, but it doesn’t purport that they live in Nevada. How to Train Your Dragon, however, would have us believe that Viking warriors all sounded like Scotsmen, even though reality tells us that real-life Vikings actually terrorized, raped, plundered, and tortured the people of Scotland.

 

To make matters worse, the children of these “viking warriors” speak with stereotypical California surfer boy accents. Apparently, the filmmakers intent in doing this was to empathize the “generation gap” between the adults and their younger generation. Hence, we’re presented with a eighth century “Viking village” inhabited by middle aged Scottish men, and teens from modern day Pasadena.

 

If you can get past this jarring idea, you can try to follow the film’s storyline. It is about the eldest son of the village chieftain Stoick the Vast, named “Hiccup” (he doesn’t hiccup so I have no idea why he has this nickname). As you would expect, Hiccup discovers a “dragon” while alone in the forest one day. He names the dragon “Toothless”, and this time we’re actually given a reason for the nickname, since he thinks the dragon has no teeth at first.

 

Unfortunately, once we meet “Toothless” and other “dragons”, we’re presented with another problem. The “dragon” looks even less like a dragon than it did in the poster image. This concept might work if “Toothless” was presented as a kind and gentle dragon that is outcast and different from dragon society, but we’re introduced to numerous other “dragons” that the viking teens must learn to fight, and apparently the animators at DreamWorks decided none of them should look anything remotely like dragons from folklore. Instead, they look like various types of Pokemon. If this movie had been named “How to Train Your Pokemon”, it would have been excellent character designs. As it stands, it makes the “vampires” in Twilight like look traditional in comparison.

 

With all those glaring elements in execution that prevent this film’s “fantasy” world from having any kind of vision consistent with the story and themes it is trying to tell, we’re left with the basic plot and characters. Most of the viking warriors are your standard stock character tough guys, and the kids in the film are your standard lighthearted rebellious teen protagonists from a thousand other movies – especially DreamWorks and Pixar movies. There’s lots of “comic relief” during the scenes where the teens have to learn how to capture dragons, but I got no amusement out of any of the “jokes”. The story I was presented with was a waste of time.

 

Of course, “Hiccup” befriends “Toothless” and learns that not all dragons are bad while he is increasingly alienated from his father, Scotty MacScot (oops, I mean Stoick the Vast) who is convinced all dragons are the scum of the earth and a pestilence to be wiped out. An hour into the movie, Stoick the Scot finds out that “Hiccup” has secretly had “Toothless” as a pet all this time, so he cruelly takes the dragon away and places him into a cage as we get the standard father/son “but he’s really good, you just don’t understand, dad!” argument copied and pasted from other movies. Shortly afterward, Stoick the Scot gets kidnapped and I got so frustrated with the film that I turned off the DVD player. The film’s ending is coming a mile away: Toothless escapes from his cage, rescues Scotty, and the dad realizes that he was wrong and there are some good dragons after all, so he lets Hiccup keep Toothless and everybody hugs and lives happily ever after. Maybe we get another throw away joke as more “comic relief” before the end credits if we’re lucky.

 

And there you have it, a basic summery why I think How to Train Your Dragon was a lousy movie. Hate my reasons if you wish, or hate my review, but I just can’t shake the lingering fact that I hate this movie. The plot and characters are entirely predictable cliches, and the execution of this movie failed on every level for me. I don’t know if they thought they were being edgy and creative by abandoning any resemblance of the story they’re trying to tell, but the end result was a mess that gave us “Scottish Warriors teach American Teens How to Train Pokemon”. Had that been the premise, I could live with it. But that wasn’t what the story was about, and thus it didn’t work. It was a weak story told even worse.

 

* out of ****

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RETROREVIEWS #18: PETE’S DRAGON (1977)

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MAY 24, 2013 SCREENING: PETE’S DRAGON (1977)

 

 

 

 

Pete’s Dragon is the second of two Disney cartoon dragon movies I watched during my fantasy film marathon. It was a completely different experience, so usually I’d spend this time telling you whether I felt it was the better or worse of the two films. However, I can’t because it pretty much breaks even. In contrast to 1941’s The Reluctant Dragon (which spent most of its time talking about Walt Disney Studios than telling us the story of the reluctant dragon) this movie lives up to its title – its all about a 10 year old boy named Pete, and his dragon, Elliott. Of course, this twist here is that Pete’s magic dragon has the ability to make himself invisible, so nobody in the film gets to see Elliott except Pete. Originally, this was going to be the case for the audience as well. The final film gives us about 20 minutes of seeing Elliott on screen, and he is depicted in cartoon form. It’s animated well enough, though given how annoying Elliott is, I can’t help but wonder if I’d enjoy this movie if he had been “invisible” the whole time.

Many live action Disney films of the 1970s (The Apple Dumpling Gang, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, etc.) haven’t aged well, and I’d probably add this movie to the list. In the film’s defense, if we rated it for being annoying, it ‘s not in the category of big budget, more-modern looking movie George Lucas’ epics like Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace or Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (which both had the most annoying sidekicks on the planet, regardless of what else they had going for it). This film features a number of notable actors as supporting characters (Mickey Rooney, Shelley Winters, etc.) and the all do their job well and have a decent script to work with. Elliot seemed like a one dimensional “harmless loveable doofus that everyone is scared of” stock character to me. Much of the movie involves slapstick with him accidentally knocking things over and making grunting sounds showing he’s sorry about it. Again, I’d have to use the George Lucas comparison: I didn’t care for this character, but he’s not as bad as Jar Jar Binks.

 

 

 

This was another slow moving, boring movie, although I had actually gotten into the story and found myself rooting for our heroes by the climatic showdown at the lighthouse. Apparently this film is remembered for its musical number, “Candle on the Water“, though I doubt the song did much for me since I draw a blank when I try to remember any of it. What can be said in the movie’s favor is that it mixes live action and animation pretty well, and has them interact together in much the same way that later films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? would do. In this way, I suppose the movie could be seen as a pioneer in its field, though what it gave us in 1977 pales to the type of the stuff they do today in that category. It does deserve praise because this was the first involving animation in which none of the Nine Old Men — Disney’s original team of animators — were involved. Still, I didnt’ care for the green-and-pink design of the dragon with his shaggy hair and stupid grin. It too, comes across as very “1970s” style character designs. This is more of a matter of personal taste, I suppose.

 

 

 

It’s ultimately a fun little movie and I don’t regret watching it. At the same time, I don’t think I’d want to rewatch it, or recommend it to others.

 

 

 

** out of ****

 

 

 

 

 

RETROREVIEWS #17: THE RELUCTANT DRAGON (1941)

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MAY 23, 2013 SCREENING: THE RELUCTANT DRAGON (1941)

 

As I kid, I always used to confuse Disney’s two loveable bumbling animated dragon movies, 1941’s The Reluctant Dragon and 1977’s Pete’s Dragon, so I decided to watch them back to back on consecutive days during my fantasy film marathon. How do they stack up? Well, the good news is that once they’re fresh in your mind, the two movies don’t really have much in common aside from featuring an overweight gentle friendly dragon. However, they don’t really offer up anything really compelling or memorable, either. Here’s a balanced look at both movies, starting with The Reluctant Dragon.

 

The surprising thing about the 1941 movie is really what it turns out the movie isn’t about: the reluctant dragon. The film clocks in at 76 minutes running time, and only about 10 minutes of it (a portion of the film that occurs near the end) is actually the animated segment about the reluctant dragon. So what fills the vast remainder of the movie? A wraparound segment about the “magic” of Walt Disney studios. Some of it is really interesting and fun, but unfortunately, much of it is as hokey and dated as it sounds. Rather than just give us a straight “behind the scenes” look at Disney animation studios of the 1940s, the film goes with a fictional story about an ordinary Joe wanting to pitch his reluctant dragon story to the studio (which he is too modest to do, leaving his wife to talk him into visiting the studio and seeing Walt Disney in person). Once inside, swell Mr. Disney is nice enough to meet him face-to-face and give him a grand tour of the studio himself. What a guy! Walt Disney plays himself in the movie, and while he is always a delight to see on screen and an important figure in history, I found myself preferring to watch “Saving Mr. Banks” with Tom Hanks as Disney, than watch the Disney company’s “look how awesome we are” puff piece from the 40s.

 

A huge irony about this movie is that most the “Disney animators” in the movie, (who talk about how great it is to work for Disney) were actually actors cast as animators. The real-life animators went on strike around the same time this movie came out, which led to quite an embarrassment for Walt Disney Disney pictures at the time. In fact, it probably contributed to the movie flopping at the box office. In fairness to Disney, the strike happened after the movie was completed so its fantasy version of “real life animators” really wasn’t deliberate, and the animation techniques and various production offices they show at the studio do appears to be genuine – however, much of the information they give about movie making magic is relevant to 1940s film-making and no longer holds true today.

 

Not surprisingly, the bulk of this feature length movie is no longer shown its in original form today. It can be found in some obscure Disney releases, like the 2002 out of print DVD release Walt Disney Treasures: Behind the Scenes at the Disney Studio, or as exclusive DVD available to Disney Movie Club members by mail in 2007. More often, the 10 minute animated short has been released on its own and packaged with other Disney cartoon shorts on DVD. The short is cute, harmless fluff. It lives up to its title by giving us a story about a reluctant dragon who doesn’t want to fight battles with humans, so he and a “brave knight” scheme to hide in a cave and pretend to have a battle (complete with shouts and sound effects) so the local villagers will believe he slayed the dragon and stop pestering both of them. Ironically the whole wraparound segment about “Mr. Disney” agreeing to make this cartoon seems to be its own version a phony story presented to audiences so they will leave the studio alone.

 

 

Don’t get me wrong, there are parts of the “studio tour” that were really funny and provided some good information to viewers, and it was a genuinely innovative idea to create a “package film” in this manner, and give us something different besides a series of unrelated cartoons strung together. However, the end result gives me much of the same reaction that critics of the 1940s had: we were expecting a feature length movie about a dragon, and didn’t care for an idealized version of what Walt Disney Studios is like. It’s passable entertainment, but considering how Disney prides themselves on being such “pioneers” in the industry, they could have given us so much more.

 

** out of ****

RETROREVIEWS #16: REIGN OF FIRE (2002)

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MAY 22, 2013 SCREENING: REIGN OF FIRE (2002)

 

Sadly, for me, Reign of Fire is one of those films that fell into “This should be a blast, but its not” category. Other examples are Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. They’re the kind of movies where the basic premise of the movie is so bizarre and edgy that it sounds like the movie is going to be a fun experience, no matter how the film is executed. For example, when it came to Tim Burton (a weirdo, cutting edge director) + Alice in Wonderland (a weirdo, cutting edge book) , the combined result should have watchable and interesting, even if it was badly made. Unfortunately, it wasn’t.

 

The same is true with Reign of Fire. Of course, it gives you an intriguing and really awesome premise. This is a traditional fantasy film about dragons, featuring the standard versions of dragons we’re used to from European folklore (giant, powerful fire-breathing, winged reptilian creatures) with one unique twist: it happens in the future. Instead of the setting occurring in the dark ages, or medieval times, or even some imaginary world with wizards that looks quasi-Arthurian age), this movie takes place in London in the year 2084 A.D. A science fiction element has been added to explain why Dragons are running rampant in the future when they’re unknown in present day. In the film, it turns out that Dragons are a type of forgotten prehistoric creature that was long assumed to be a myth, but they were reawakened in the year 2020, and now they’ve become a terrible outbreak with millions of dragons terrorizing mankind in only a few short years. The result is that the people of London try to fight back by any means possible – and we’re treated to battles with dragons involving helicopters, tanks, drones, computer targets, and machine guns.

 

All of that sounds like it would make for a fun movie. Of course, as I mentioned above, its not. Christian Bale and Matthew McConaughey are the leads in this movie, and neither one does anything interesting. Bale, in particular, plays the same type of “inspirational one-man, self-appointed military leader” he played in numerous other roles (most notably as Batman and John Connor in Termination: Salvation). Why Bale keeps getting so many leading man roles is beyond me, since he was fairly dull and one-note in those movies, and the same is true here.

 

The film plods along but never really develops. A couple of plot points are introduced that seem like they’d be important later on (like the soldiers discovering every Dragon they’ve encountered in public is female, so there must be a lone “alpha male” breeder dragon hiding somewhere), but none of these plot developments really take the story in a new direction or pay off later. As expected, they eventually find the male dragon by the end of the movie and kill it (in a scene that goes exactly how you’d expect), and there’s no plot twists after that, either. The movie just gives us the obligatory warning that the dragons may return someday and “they’ll be ready for them”.

 

Take away some cool looking dragon affects, and this is your standard dreary and gritty war movie. It’s not bad, but it’s not particularly good, either. It’s just acceptable. Apparently some of the fault lies in the fact the the movie was shot during the crisis of the outbreak of foot and mouth disease in western Europe. Since most of the scenes were filmed on location in England and Ireland, many planned sequences from the script had to be scraped. The end result is still a coherent movie that holds together and makes logical sense, but doesn’t deliver anything innovative or exciting.

 

In the end, I’m just sorry that I can’t recommend Reign of Fire to anyone. It was a really great idea, for what it’s worth.

 

** out of ****

RETROREVIEWS #15: ERAGON (2006)

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MAY 21, 2013 SCREENING: ERAGON (2006)

 

Well, this is awkward. Eragon, based on the best selling book by teen novelist Christopher Paolini, was universally panned as a horrible adaptation of the source material. My brother read all three books in the original series, while I had no interest whatsoever, thinking the concept was silly. When the movie came out and was ridiculed, saying it an abomination of source material that was lightweight to begin with, I thought I’d go along with that. The parodies practically wrote themselves, with one review of Eragon noting the movie opening with a narrator telling us the King was lonely and missing his stone, followed by the King himself announcing that he is lonely and misses his stone. Wow, this will be an awful movie, right?

 

 

 

Wrong. I liked Eragon – at least I liked what was presented on screen, and thought the movie accomplished what it was going for. For all you fans of Paolini’s work, I’m afraid I can’t compare it to the novel, so if it’s a total distortion of the source material, I’m sorry. But as a film, it was quite an nice little piece of entertainment.

 

 

 

Our hero, Eragon (whom I always thought was the name of the Dragon but is actually the name of the human protagonist) comes upon a mysterious glowing blue stone, which he discovers is actually a dragon egg when it hatches. The baby dragon communicates with himself telepathically, and he learns that since he hatched the egg, he is now the dragon’s owner and rider. Rachel Weiss voices the dragon, a magnificent creature named Saphira, and she soon grows into a full sized dragon.

 

 

 

Much of the film has to do with the relationship between a dragon and his rider, as Eragon must learn to “be one with the Dragon” (yes, it’s hokey, but it worked on screen with the serious tone of the story), and struggles to reach this ultimate goal which takes years of training before the dragon and its rider are able to coordinate their flight and think together with one mind. Jeremy Irons makes a nice appearance as Brom, a mentor figure who knows about Dragons. Given how I watched a truly awful “Dragon” themed movie a day earlier, which also starred Irons (overacting in Dungeons & Dragons), I can say with absolute authority that Irons and the rest of the cast fit their characters and preformed their roles well in this film, and it was by no means a bad movie.

 

 

 

Eragon is another film that will never be a genre defining classic along the lines of E.T., or even a blockbuster like Harry Potter, and is actually pretty forgettable and lightweight fare. However, what it does, it does well. There were bits of the movie that I disliked, but mostly they were minor complaints – the dragon looked “feathery” like a bird (which, judging by the cover art, wasn’t in the book), the Dragon aging was a bit rushed, John Malkovich was a one-dimensional bad guy in the movie (though given what he had to work with the script, his performance was good). All of these aside, however, Eragon makes a very pleasant and fun fantasy adventure film for the whole family. I don’t even understand the complaints about the movie’s “confusing” ending. I’ve never read the books, and I understood the ending perfectly – the King reveals that he has a rival red dragon who breathes fire, setting up a cliffhanger for a future sequel. (How do I know this? The red dragon was on the cover of the second book). Unfortunately, with all the negativity heaped on Eragon, we will now never get the adaptation of the sequel that was teased at the end of this film.

 

 

 

Whether the book is a timeless classic, I don’t know. But Eragon, as a movie, is okay in my book. I’ve seen lots of movies that come off as “generic Star Wars ripoffs”,and I certainly didn’t get that experience in this movie aside from the “lone hero’s journey” that is part of every fantasy film, and a bit of the “Use the force, Luke” deja vu at the end. Otherwise, Eragon tells its own story, and it’s a darned good one.

 

 

 

** ½ out of ****

 

 

RETROREVIEWS #14: DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (2000)

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MAY 20, 2013 SCREENING: DUNGEONS & DRAGONS (2000)

 

At last, I’m taking a look at the film adaptation of the classic fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons. Many people aren’t even aware that Dungeons & Dragons was turned into a live action movie. After screening the film, I have to admit that they’re not missing much. Dungeons & Dragons was a very cringe-worthy experience. If it weren’t for the fact that its supposedly “based on” the best selling card game, I could have easily mistaken it for an Uwe Boll film. On second though, given that Uwe Boll adapts video games, maybe this could have been a Uwe Boll film!

 

I might be reacting too harshly, but Dungeons & Dragons has very little in the movie to recommend it to others. Most of the harsh reviews for the earnest-but-badly-made direct-to-DVD Dragonlance film should have probably been directed towards its live action cousin, instead. Both of them are nominally based on the Dungeons & Dragons property, but this one is a live action movie based on the original game, and the far worst adaptation of the two. It captures almost nothing from the card game, aside from using some similar character names, objects, and locations.

 

One thing that can be said for Dungeons & Dragons is the movie features a surprisingly solid cast. Jeremy Irons, Justin Whalin, Marlon Wayans, Thora Birch, Bruce Payne. They appear to be aware that they’re making a piece of crap, since most of the actors in the film give terrible performances and I honestly expected better. Jeremy Irons, in particular, seems to deliberately overact so much that its almost like he was filming a parody of these types of movies. You can even watch the trailer for the movie and see yourself how ridiculous it is in only two minutes. Marlon Wayans’ is supposed to be the “comic relief” in the movie. His acting is not as poor, although the script gives him little to work with and he just comes across as annoying and falls flat. (Ironically, Irons “serious” bad guy role is much more amusing because he camps it up so much) Thora Birch has always been hit and miss for me, and this movie is definitely an example of “miss”.

 

A lot of the action in the movie takes place on the balcony of a castle, and the battle scenes actually look fairly cool – albeit in a “Star Wars, Episode II: Attack of the Clones” sort of way. That is, there’s plenty of very sleek CGI fights taking place, but it looks like all the overblown Star Wars prequel space battles, except the ships are replaced with dragons. People who defend the video game like fight scenes in Man of Steel should really enjoy the action in this film. The rest of us will probably have some problems with it – even if it looks “kewl” at first glance.

 

I’m giving Dungeons & Dragons one and a half stars, mostly of the basis that the movie has numerous examples of “so bad its good” qualities. It is a textbook example of where the audience can get enjoyment out of some scenes for the wrong reasons. Terrible acting (from ordinarily good actors), ridiculous clichés, crazy CGI, and bad stereotyping are among the things you’ll find appearing in this movie when you least expect it, if you’re willing to hunt down this movie and give it a look just to see things for yourself. Overall I felt this movie was an insult to its title, but I still enjoyed watching it at times. Dungeons & Dragons isn’t just garbage – it’s beautiful garbage.

 

* ½ out of ****

RETROREVIEWS #13: DRAGONSLAYER (1981)

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MAY 17, 2013 SCREENING: DRAGONSLAYER (1981)

 

 

 

Dragonslayer deserves due credit for ushering in the era of “modern” fantasy films where Dragons legitimately come across as terrifying, realistic-looking creatures, and for being one the first films produced by Disney to take on a darker, more adult tone with the type of audience it was trying to reach. That being said, the movie itself just didn’t impress me too much.

 

 

Audiences in 1981 seem to agree, and the film ultimately flopped at the box office, grossing $14 million on a $18 million budget. Today, it’s regarded as a cult classic and many people are fond of the film for being ahead of its time,but this didn’t help it when it was originally released.

 

 

I thought the basic premise of the film as very compelling. It introduces us to a dark age era Kingdom called Urland (set sometime in the sixth century after the Roman Empire fell),and the main conflict is that they are being terrorized by a 400 year old dragon named Vermithrax Pejorative. Virgin girls are even offered in sacrifice to the dragon twice a year, to keep it at bay. Of course, this leads to a character coming into play that represents the title of the film – the villagers seek out a dragon slayer who is capable of killing the terrible beast and ending the curse.

 

 

My main problems with the film were that the movie simply wasn’t engaging and it was difficult to watch with its sluggish, boring pace. The events that set up the story are a lot more fun to write about here than they are to watch unfold on screen. A related issue is that the film tries to keep the audience in suspense by showing various glimpses of the dragon, but we only see the dragon in its entirety towards the end of the story. This is also effective at first, but gets tedious as the film unfolds. I would have preferred to see interaction with the dragon more often, rather than just hearing about it (when we do see the dragon in its entirety, the special effects are quite stunning for 1981).

 

 

One aspect that was a nice twist on the usual fantasy story, but didn’t full live up to its potential, had to do with the conflict between paganism and Christianity. At the time the events of the film take place, much of western Europe is in a transitional state between the two cultures. The film prominently plays up this fact and gives some fascinating insight showing how the introduction of Christianity was affecting the culture of the people at the time. One of the most important characters is the village priest, who leads his congregation to confront the Dragon, and denounces it as incarnation of the Devil itself. The film seemed to be going for some type of metaphor, but this also lacked the punch it really needed to sell the story.

 

 

Dragonslayer is a well made film, giving us a dark and dreary world, visually appealing creatures, interesting story, and some intriguing ideas. However, my opinion is that none of this quite came together the way they should, and the movie is ultimately dissatisfying and boring despite everything it has going for it. There’s enough there that I’m even considering screening it again sometime, although I came away disappointed the first time around. Check it out for yourself, and let me know what you think!

 

 

** out of ****