Dragonheart (1996)
Universal Home Video
Cast: Dennis Quaid, David Thewlis, Julie Christie, Sean Connery
Extras: Commentary Track,

For some years now, we have witnessed groundbreaking technological advancements in the area of computer-generated images. What originally started with rather short snippets of computer-rendered dinosaurs in "Jurassic Park" in 1992 has become a major element in today’s movie-making, to the point where it seems that almost every TV commercial features computer-generated or -enhanced images. We have seen a flood of films that rely on the use of computers to create completely new worlds and non-existent creatures, many of which would not even have a right to exist in the old, traditional world of film making, for they are poorly done and without much entertainment value. Dragonheart is one of the shining exceptions to this sad rule. A rare gem that captures both the emotional impact and skills of traditional storytelling and the legitimate use of computer-generated images to create a superb story and a creature to match. Here it is Draco, a dragon with personality and an attitude.

The story starts in England of 948 AD. Lead by their tyrannical king, royal soldiers butcher the helpless inhabitants of a small village. Before the end of the day, though, the king is dead, slain on his own battlefield by a handful of peasants who have lured him into a trap. From afar, Bowen (Dennis Quaid) a Knight of the Ancient Order and his student Einon, the king’s son, watch the bloody massacre. While trying to save his father’s live, Einon himself is mortally wounded and taken back to his castle. To save Einon, who is apparently dying, and the throne with him, his mother (Julie Christie) decides to consult an age-old dragon for help. In his last breath, Einon has to vow to become a good and just king to the dragon before the creature generously gives half of his own heart to the dying king, saving his life. Growing up, it turns out that Einon (David Thewlis) is just as blood-thirsty as his father was, enslaving and killing his people, leading a terrible tyranny himself. Detested and disillusioned, Bowen leaves the royal court. He feels betrayed and believes the dragon’s heart ruined Einon’s soul. Screaming for vengeance, he vows to kill every single dragon in the world. And so he does… until he meets the last of them.

He encounters the Dragon accidentally and immediately chases the firebreather, trying to bring him down. A fierce battle between the two erupts. Both being equally skilled, they start talking to each other and after a little while the dragon suggests a truce. Since Bowen’s living is slaying dragons, he would be out of a job when the last dragon is killed… and naturally, the latter does not want to die. The two team up, creating a fictitious dragonslaying duo. To this end, the dragon pretends to endanger villages, while Bowen is nearby as a skillful dragonslayer … for adequate compensation, of course. Things change when they meet Karla (Dina Meyer), a girl who is determined to put an end to Einon’s bloody reign. She convinces Bowen to build an army and oppose his former student.

"Dragonheart" has a charming and humorous flair throughout. While it’s a rather traditional, poignant, fantasy adventure story-wise, the fact that we can watch a dragon soar the skies in broad daylight in previously unparalleled realism makes this movie an absolutely stunning spectacle. Dennis Quaid is the perfect cast for Bowen, displaying a strength and dignity one would expect from a Knight of the Ancient Order. The way he interacts with the fictional, computer-created creature is the best and most convincing such performance I have seen in any movie so far. Without belittling any of the live actors’ performances, the movie’s attraction is clearly Draco, the dragon. Brought to live by the effects studio ILM and creature designer Phil Tippett, Draco takes the technology employed in "Jurassic Park" a step further. While the effects shots utilizing computer graphics in previous movies were still very limited, it was obvious to everyone involved that there was still plenty of room to push. "Dragonheart" pushed. Watching this magnificent animal come to live will leave you breathless. You will have to remind yourself that what you are watching on screen is nothing but a fantasy taken shape in ILM’s high-end computers. The amount of detail that went into the dragon’s mimicry, his body language, and the overall appearance is very nearly perfect. The density of the computer generated images always matches the live action plate and you will never have the feeling the dragon might somehow be inserted in the frame. Draco’s attitude and witty dialogues help to make this creature convincing and sympathetic especially because of the voice of the creature, created by Sean Connery. He is a funny and generally friendly fellow and his relaxed attitude helps substantially in creating a believable relationship with Bowen and the audience. His wide range of human emotions introduce him as a sympathetic character early in the movie and he will grow to your heart with every minute you see him on screen. The animators projected many of Connery’s mannerisms and expressions into Draco’s behavior, and managed to create a touching "buddy" in this fearsome creature.

Rumor had it during production that ILM had to send employees home at a certain point because they needed all the computer power they could get to render the images for the movie in time to meet their deadline. A friend of mine at ILM assures me that this isn’t exactly the truth. The truth was that the finishing stages on "Dragonheart" stressed ILM’s equipment and ate up all of their available resources to complete, forcing them to hire numerous additional computers in order to finish the job on time. "Dragonheart" is one of Universal’s "Collector’s Editions", stuffed with plenty of bonus material. There is a 45 minute long, informative "Making Of Dragonheart" featurette. Director Rob Cohen gives away a lot of information about the origins of the movie and how it all came together. It is very obvious from this behind-the-scenes look, just how much Cohen embraced Draco. Not a single detail went unnoticed and the energy with which he directed the computer animators to get the dragon’s movements and expressions right is extremely impressive. Producer Raffaela De Laurentiis sheds some light on "Dragonheart", an idea she had been toying with for a long time. She had her pet project on hold for over five years until she witnessed the technical wonders of "Jurassic Park" and realized that the time had come that the project could finally be realized. You might not be familiar with her name, but De Laurentiis is one of the few producers in Hollywood who dares to tackle real fantasy themes when you hold a fantasy movie of the last 15 years or so in your hands, chances are, she produced the title, be it the cult classic "Dune", Arnold Schwarzenegger’s break-through "Conan" movies or current movies like "Kull The Conqueror". While not always successful, I find it very admirable that she keeps pushing the genre with almost every one of her productions and I think it is safe to say that American fantasy movie would be nowhere without her visions and commitment.
The disc also contains two deleted scenes from the movie, as well as various trailers and an image library of many of the dragon’s original design sketches and models. The disc also contains an insightful <$commentary,commentary track> by director Rob Cohen.

The movie itself is presented in its 2.35:1 theatrical <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio and the image quality is superb. A lot of effort must have gone into this movie’s transfer, as it is clean and sharp, jumping off the screen. Not a bit of color bleeding, <$chroma,chroma noise> or <$pixelation,pixelation> here, with nicely saturated colors, deep blacks and very natural fleshtones. The movie comes on a <$RSDL,RSDL> disc giving you the pleasure to view everything on this DVD without having to switch the disc.

Randy Edelman has contributed a powerful musical score to "Dragonheart". It is a mythical, medieval sounding piece of orchestral music that is very dynamic and found its way nicely to this DVD’s <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 soundtrack. The soundtrack perfectly matches the actions and atmosphere on screen and its melodic composition and rich orchestration lines it up with some of the industry’s best works. The legato strings sing and soar nicely while the horn sections are masterly used to syncopate other elements, giving the music the right punch and vitality. "Dragonheart" comes fully dubbed in English, French, and Spanish, with English captions and Spanish subtitles.

"Dragonheart" is a spectacular adventure that takes you to a world far from here, introducing a fictional creature that is breathing and alive. The movie has an interesting script and features some striking photography – indoors as well as outdoors. The fact that the computer generated Draco comes across flawlessly makes this movie a highlight in the fantasy movie genre. Seeing it come alive so vividly on this splendid "Collectors Edition" DVD from Universal Home Video makes it single-handedly a must-buy.

Here’s yet some more information on the movie, which we found very interesting and did not want to withhold from you. Did you know that…

  • ILM used a modified model of the T-Rex from "Jurassic Park", with wings from the Pterodactyl from "The Flintstones", in an early animation test for Dragonheart?
  • The computer model used for Draco was changed for almost every scene to stress certain features? Sometimes his wings were bigger than at others, sometimes his neck longer, and so on.
  • A special software had to be written to lip-sync Draco? No existing software was able to deal with the requirements imposed on the job. ILM’s own "Caricature" software turned out to be used for much more than lip-syncing in the end, as it was so much more powerful than the commercial Softimage software package.