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Dragon Quest: The Best Fire-Breathers on Film

We here at Movie Ink were a little peeved around this time last year. We sat through the interminably long first installment of The Hobbit for one simple reason: We wanted to see a giant, flying, fire-breathing dragon. All we got was a tease — a wing here, an extreme close-up of an eyeball there. While waiting in anticipation of Part Two and wondering what to do in the meantime, we realized that there aren’t a whole lot of dragon movies out there, let alone very many good ones. We did some brainstorming and put together a list of ones that got us through the past year:

Sleeping BeautySleeping Beauty (1959). Yep, this is an animated Disney musical, but the fluff goes out the window during the climax when the evil sorceress Maleficent changes into a king-size fire-breathing dragon and battles a grossly outmatched Prince Phillip. It’s an intense scene — especially for a kid — and made even more so by Maleficent’s grisly demise. (A live-action version starring Angelina Jolie will arrive next year.)

Ghidorah the Three-Headed MonsterGhidorah, The Three-Headed Monster (1964). Sure, this is a ’60s-era Japanese daikaiju flick, not what usually comes to mind when one thinks “fire breathing dragons”, but that’s exactly what this bad boy is. How bad? Ghidorah debuted in a feature film that gave him top billing even though he starred opposite Godzilla, Mothra, and Rodan. The space-dragon would prove to be so popular that he would appear in eight more films over four decades. More importantly, he’s got three freakin’ heads.

DragonslayerDragonslayer (1981). What is arguably the best movie dragon to date — even 30+ years later — appeared in this cult-classic fantasy film, brought to life via sophisticated, realistic animatronics by Phil Tippett. The beast ravages a small kingdom during the Dark Ages, until confronted by a wannabe wizard’s apprentice (Peter MacNicol). It also boasts the best dragon name ever: Vermithrax Pejorative, Latin for “The Worm of Thrace Who Makes Things Worse”. Fuck yeah.

Q the Winged SerpentQ — The Winged Serpent (1982). In this oddball, off-beat B-movie, the winged Aztec lizard god Quetzalcoatl takes up residence in the Chrysler Building (because the Empire State Building was soooo 1930s) and begins snacking on New Yorkers, until David Carradine, Richard Roundtree, and Michael Moriarty save the day — no, seriously. A guilty pleasure, with pretty good stop-motion effects, an unexpected police procedural element, and a nice Method performance from Moriarty to off-set the B-movie cheese.

DragonheartDragonheart (1996). The advent of large-scale, photo-realistic CGI effects in film made it possible to go balls-out with fantastical cinema creatures like never before, which is what director Rob Cohen (xXx, the first Fast and the Furious film) did with this fantasy adventure. Dennis Quaid stars as a knight who enters into an unlikely partnership with the last living dragon (voiced by Sean Connery) to commit staged dragon-slayings while dodging a corrupt king (David Thewlis). A modest success, nominated for the Academy Award for Best Special Effects.

Reign of FireReign of Fire (2002). Christian Bale leads a ragtag group of survivors that includes a pre-300 Gerard Butler in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by fire-breathing dragons. Yep, it’s cheesy and the plot is hard to swallow, but the dragons are impressive; however, they pale in comparison to Matthew McConaughey’s over-the-top performance as a crazy-eyed mercenary who’s part General Patton, part Col. Kurtz, and thoroughly insane. A guilty pleasure if there ever was one.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of FireHarry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005). Our hero braves a wicked hedge maze to steal an egg from a deadly dragon (an Hungarian Horntail, to be precise) in what is arguably the best sequence in the best film of the series. Though much of the effects in the film were CGI, director Mike Newell had an actual dragon built for some of the shots in the scene, and it actually breathed fire.

BeowulfBeowulf (2007). Granted, Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture animated version of the classic Anglo-Saxon epic (adapted by Neil Gaiman and Roger Avary) is better known for another eccentric performance by Crispin Glover and a more, um, revealing one by Angelina Jolie; however, its conclusion features a gripping, brutal battle between Beowulf (Ray Winstone) and a dragon with a surprising connection to the hero.

How to Train Your DragonHow to Train Your Dragon (2010). Sure, this is kids fare, but even grown-ups will find it hard to resist the imaginative variety of dragons featured in this animated fantasy. Plus, it’s just damn good, becoming the animated sleeper hit of the year and unseating Shrek as DreamWorks crowning achievement in animation. It also has vikings!

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About Gary Dowell

Professional film critic, journalist, Byronic hero.

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