Sunday, May 13, 2012

Dragonslayer (1981)

In your basic medieval fantasy world (it's never quite clear if it's supposed to be a secondary one very close to out own, or our own world with a bit of added magic), magic is one the wane, leaving Ulrich (Ralph Richardson), an elderly wizard as one of the last - if not the last - of his kind. The rest of Ulrich, his even older servant Hodge (Sydney Bromley), and his magically not very competent apprentice Galen (Peter MacNicol) is disturbed by a group of peasants from the far away country of Urland.

The group, lead by a rather ambiguously gendered young man named Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), has come to ask Ulrich to slay the dragon who has been plaguing their country for years. Urland's king, Casiodorus Rex (Peter Eyre) has struck a deal with the dragon, sacrificing a virgin determined via a lottery to the creature two times a year so the dragon won't burn down half his kingdom.

It's not a satisfactory state of affairs, really, even if you're not completely against virgin sacrifices, for it just so happens that the virginal girl children of the upper classes of society never get chosen by the lottery. Why, one might think the system is rigged against the poor!

After some old-mannish hemming and hawing, Ulrich agrees to help his visitors. Alas, before he has even begun the journey to Urland, the wizard manages a pretty impressive suicide by proxy, said proxy being in the form of the king's henchman Tyrian (John Hallam), said suicide being by way of the wizard letting himself being stabbed with a dagger to prove his magic and dying of it. Oops, as they say outside of fantasy worlds.

While poking around in his former master's possessions, Galen realizes that he can use a magic stone to make his minor magics much more powerful than they usually are, and decides, for reasons the film never really makes its audience privy to, to take on Ulrich's dragon slaying mission.

The whole process starts out well enough, what with Galen burying the dragon's lair under a landslide, but the situation deteriorates once the young man meets the rather displeased Casiodorus and realizes that the dragon isn't as dead as everyone (except Casiodorus - one imagines a dragon to be quite a useful distraction from internal political problems, especially before the term "terrorist" was invented) hoped. Surprisingly enough, Galen will turn out to be more tenacious and courageous than anyone could have expected.

Matthew Robbins's Dragonslayer (co-written by Robbins and future adventure game developing legend Hal Barwood) may be a Disney production, but if you expect the sort of slick, sugary-sweet and ethically as well as politically conservative confection much of the studio's output is, you will be sorely disappointed. Dragonslayer falls right into the middle of a phase when Disney's film arm - like a mouse and copyright terror based version of Hammer - seemed rather confused about its position in the market place, and gave immense amounts of money to projects made by people who actually cared about more than box office numbers and teaching children not to be uppity. For once, Disney was a studio that took artistic risks, perfectly willing to finance a film like this, an often dark fantasy movie with more than one clever idea, and politics of a sort you would never expect to find in a Disney production.

Robbins and Barlow, with the help of the best, coherent and believable production design money can buy, obviously put a lot of thought into their film's world building, realizing how important it is to sell a fantasy world - even one close to our own past - through convincing details that make it looked lived in. Dragonslayer's world feels and looks believably medieval except for Galen and Valerian, who are blandly American (and not too well acted to boot). Of course, when were the heroes in Hollywood movies hoping for a young audience not?

Thankfully, the film's story - the sort of Hero's Journey that takes the whole "killing of the father" quite literally in a very ironic way - takes place in front of an interesting background that's fit to distract from its boring protagonists. The world of Dragonslayer isn't just at a point where magic begins to disappear from it, but also at one where pagan religion is beginning to be replaced by Christianity.

The film is clearly on the side of the pagans here, for all Christian priests we get to see are of the nasty, probably pope-pleasing, type whose main traits seem to be arrogance and hypocrisy; the only victory Christianity achieves during the course of the movie is based on falsely taking credit for the effect of some good old pagan magic.

This savaging (or in one case, roasting) of the Church is part of a political subtext that's so anti-authoritarian you'd have a hard time convincing me of being in a Disney movie or a traditional cinematic fantasy tale if I hadn't watched the film myself. All figures of authority - apart from those very few willing to sacrifice themselves instead of others - are figures of derision here, kings and priests aren't born to rule, but people who are loathsome, casually brutal, and sometimes funny in their ineptness. The film doesn't make this point subtly, but it's not a point that needs subtlety.

Dragonslayer's script has some other features I find rather pleasant. There's a willingness to go to places you would not expect in a Disney movie or most other Hollywood productions of this type, a readiness to be grim and brutal when it is appropriate without falling into the trap of becoming grim and brutal only for the sake of being edgy.

In addition to its very interesting script (that is even interesting enough to distract me from the whole Hero's Journey thing), its fine production design and good acting by anyone but the youthful protagonists (who are more often neutral than actively bad), Dragonslayer also presents a very fine dragon, created through a mixture of animatronics and technologically enhanced stop motion that manages the difficult mission of creating a dragon that looks exactly as impressive and fearsome as it is supposed to be.

What else could one ask of a film?


No comments: