[List] - Here Be Dragons

"We took the approach that Smaug is a paranoid psychopath. He has a lust for gold, but it’s a lust that he can’t explain. He’s not like a normal person who wants wealth for all the trappings of fast cars and yachts. Smaug doesn’t have any of that, the poor guy. For 200 years, he’s been there on this pile of gold waiting for someone to come, just sitting there doing crossword puzzles and catching up on Breaking Bad seasons on Netflix. He hasn’t got much else to do."
That's from Peter Jackson, talking about his and fellow Hobbit writer's approach to crafting the character of Smaug, Tolkien's only featured dragon, set to make his debut in the Desolation of himself, opening today. Smaug joins a raft of dragons that have found their way to the screen over the years. And as technology has increased, so has the potential for true impressiveness (and the disappointment when they fail to match expectations). Today, it makes a kind of sense to (non exhaustively) look back on dragons of the screen, and examine the effect they've had on those that have come after, and the mark they've left.

Hit the jump for the list.

Before we dive into this dragon retrospective, it might be a good place to start by establishing what exactly is meant by "dragon." Dragons are mythological creatures that occur in nearly every ancient mythical system. The Greeks had Typhon, the Egyptians had Apep, the Mayans had Quetzalcoatl, and Asia was brimming with various benevolent serpents. Dinosaurs are not dragons. While it is reasonable to assume that interactions with dinosaur fossils probably informed a lot of the mythical physicality of dragons (don't believe me, compare a traditional European dragon with the UK exclusive Baryonx), dinosaurs were real, dragons weren't. So, the creatures of Jurassic Park won't appear on this list, as impressive as they were.

Similarly, Godzilla won't be appearing on this list, despite his aggressive dragon-ness. First off, he was based on Ray Harryhausen's Rhedosaurus. And the Japanese creature is either a 1) dinosaur woken by a nuclear explosion, 2) a dinosaur mutated by a nuclear explosion, or 3) an iguana mutated by a nuclear explosion (though that one tends to be ignored as American ridiculousness). Perhaps most importantly, in Japan, dragons are helpful spirits. Godzilla is a city crushing metaphor for man's own technological destruction. So, no dragon he. In the same way, vaguely lizard-like but not clearly anything in particular creatures are excluded. Only died in the wool, drawing on centuries of cultural tradition dragons are invited. So let's get on with it.

Dragon - Beowulf (2007)

It's only been in the twentieth century explosion of fantasy (read: largely Tolkien ripoff) literature that dragons have become animals, more monsters. In the old legends, specific dragons were as individual in their cunning, purpose and action as the heroes that fought them. And fighting a dragon has a long cultural history, as it was pretty much the greatest act a hero could achieve. In Zeus and Typhon's battle over Olympus, or Saint George's battle with his dragon, the dragon was as important as anyone (it only latter became passe to be a  "dragon slayer"). Tolkien, being the expert in Beowulf that he was, drew the greatest influence for Smaug from the greatest dragon story in Norse legend, the final battle of Beowulf. And as unusual as the Neil Gaiman scripted 2007 motion capture version of Beowulf might have been, it's depiction of the dragon was really something else.

Dragon - The Paper Bag Princess (1993)

Robert Munsch is one of the great children's authors of his time, and his subversion of the traditional dragon/princess story is one of his greatest successes. The dragon itself, while following the physical elements of a European dragon (wonderfully illustrated by Michael Martchenko), like the rest of the story, it explores a different side of the traditional dragon mentality. Rather than being a selfish, greedy miser, Munsch's dragon has a far more delicate ego and desire to prove himself. Munsch's dragon resembles far more the hair from the Tortoise and the hair than any dragon of myth.

Eborsisk - Willow (1988)

Before the use of computer effects, there were basically three ways to accomplish any sort of monster effects on film: hand drawn animation laid over the image, stop frame animation, or live puppetry on set. And all were used widely, though it was mostly in the 1980's that the latter most option saw it's heyday. While Willow wasn't a product of Jim Henson's Creature Shop, it was certainly heavily influenced by it (as was producer George Lucas, who had also produced Henson's 1986 Labyrinth). The Erorsisk, a duel headed serpent calling to mind the mythical Hydra, was one of the film's most ambitious sequences, and would inform Lucas' later use of the Rancour in Return of the Jedi

Elliot - Pete's Dragon (1977)

Rather unique in western films, Elliot is closer in action to the representation of an Eastern dragon. He is a benevolent (and invisible) spirit who protects Pete for as long as he needs protecting, and acts with marked vengeance when his ward is in danger. Pete's Dragon was made during that period where Disney wasn't afraid to combine animation and live action, and achieved some impressive effects in his film (the netting scene comes immediately to mind). Personally, thanks to this film I spent many of my formative years really wanting to eat a fire-licked apple. Important reminder: some childhood ambitions should be left ambitions. Fire and apples don't mix.

Toothless - How To Train Your Dragon (2010-)

I single out Toothless here because he's the lead, but 2010's How To Train Your Dragon featured the widest variety of dragon designs seen on film to date (with the Red Death being particularly impressive). And it was a fantastic film to boot, enough that it got a canon TV series, and a forth coming pair of sequels, which will hopefully dive further into the dragon mythology of that world.

Magellan - Eureeka's Castle (1989-1995)

The craziest thing about the entirely puppeted Eureeka's Castle? R.L. Stine, creator of the Goosebumps series, was the creator and lead writer on the series for it's duration. The dragon Magellan was a full suit puppet, in the vein of Big Bird, and an impressive one at that (his seemingly independent tail was, in fact, an entirely different puppet). The popularity of Eureeka's Castle, and of Magellan specifically, would influence the creators of the Canadian series Dudley the Dragon, which had a less sophisticated puppet as it's lead.

Draco - Dragonheart (1996)

Sometimes dragons talk. Smaug is certainly a chatty character in Tolkien. The problem is, dragons don't have lips, which can make their talking look strange.While Dragonheart may not be the best movie (or the best fantasy movie. Or the best dragon-centric fantasy movie. Or the best fantasy film starring Dennis Quaid) ever made, considering that it came out only three years after Jurassic Park introduced CGI to films, the effects are quite impressive, and Sean Connery's Draco became the standard bearer for how to make a dragon talk without it looking too goofy (they went with a stumped snout).

Great Dragon - Merlin (2008-2012)

The Great Dragon was Merlin's most consistently used and complicated effect, and considering it was operating on a BBC budget, I was always impressed by what they were able to do (it helped that except for the lips, they reused the same model over and over). The character was used less and less in late seasons, and probably should have been retired entirely after a certain point. Except, when you've got John Hurt on contract, you don't want to let him go. As Jackson knew when casting Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug, and as the makers of Dragonheart knew when getting Connery, if your dragon has to talk, you need someone damned impressive providing the vocals.

Taro - 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)

Sinbad doesn't get as much recognition as Jason and the Argonauts, or Clash of the Titans, but Harryhausen's effects are no less impressive here than in any of his other stuff. His inclusion of Taro the Dragon, an improvement on his Rhedosaurus from Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, challenges the cyclopes to a fight, in a scene that is an obvious homage to the famous T-rex/gorilla fight of King Kong. While it may seem to skirt the edge of dragon-dinosaur identity, Taro is reasonably similar to the Welsh dragon (minus the wings). Gets bonus points for possibly being the first classical dragon to ever appear on film.

Drogon - A Song Of Ice and Fire (1996-)/Game of Thrones (2011-)

Don't worry, I won't post any spoilers about the future of dragons from the novels. But fans of the novels knew that if the TV was to be really good, they've have to make time for Dany's dragons. And while in season two there were complaints that the dragon effects were rough, and few and far between, the incredible success of the show saw an increase enough in budget so that, as the dragons grew larger in season three, so did their screen time. Having seen the maquette for Drogon up close, it is an impressively details piece of artwork, and the CG models that appear on the show match it perfectly. And those that have read the novels know that there are greater things in store for the Targaryen "children."

Vermithrax Pejorative - Dragonslayer (1981)

For my money, the most impressive dragon ever to appear on film. While the movie is never entirely certain if it wants to be a brilliant, hard edged satirical subversion of a traditional fantasy story, or a tepid rehashing of the same, the effectiveness of Verithrax cannot be disputed. Her movements were created by Phil Tippett's Go Motion technique, which combined standard stop frame animation with controlled mechanical puppetry, which results in a smoother shot, and more organic fluid motion. It should be noted that well into production (until some upstart at ILM started playing on his computer), this same Go Motion technique was how the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park were going to be realised. Watch the shot of Peter MacNicol being chased through the caves again, now imagine the scene of the T-rex chasing Muldoon's jeep created the same way.

Honourable Mentions: Both Maleficent (Sleeping Beauty, 1959) and Mim (Sword in the Stone, 1963) transform into equally impressive dragons, but neither are actually dragons (though Mim's design would later return in the form of Elliot). If witches were dragons, they'd be at the top of the list, but sadly dragons weigh considerably more than ducks.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.


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