The dragon is a big deal for the Chinese. Although (allegedly) non-existent, this creature is greatly revered as the ultimate embodiment of strength, power and good luck. The Emperors of ancient China even adopted it as their official symbol. While the dragon has commonly been depicted as evil and destructive in European folklore, the Chinese consider it to be a benevolent force.
So in conjunction with the Year of the Dragon, Electroshadow presents a selection of good-hearted dragons from the celluloid world. Unfortunately, this means excluding one of my all-time favourites, the dreaded Vermithrax Pejorative from the 1981 live-action Disney fantasy “Dragonslayer”. That beast is a total badass, but he’s also a bad guy. Plus, those that aren’t central to the plot or aren’t definable characters in their own right don’t make it onto the list. Therefore, no representatives from “Reign Of Fire”, “Shrek” or “Harry Potter And The Goblet Of Fire”. Now, here we go with Cinema’s most famous fire-breathing flying serpents…
TOOTHLESS IN “HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON”
I was a bit biased against this film before I’d watched it. The trailers made it out to be another run-of-the-mill Dreamworks animation, and that was not a good thing. The studio had been playing second fiddle to Pixar for the longest time, and for good reason. Dreamworks cartoons were uninspired, predictable and just not very good in general. “How To Train Your Dragon” turned out to be not just the exception to the norm, but a very good film in its own right as well. A large part of its appeal lies in its depiction of dragons, based on the series of children’s books by Cressida Cowell. As it turns out, these monstrous creatures hunted by Viking tribes as a rite of passage aren’t so monstrous after all. Our hero, a gawky young boy named Hiccup, befriends one, and names him Toothless. Usually, when kiddie stories try to get all cute with otherwise fearsome characters, the results can be a little cloying. The great thing about Toothless is that while he is cute, he behaves like a real wild animal, with streaks of unpredictability and a distinct mind of his own. Co-director Dean DeBlois revealed that he broke away from the book and based elements of the dragon’s personality on a domesticated mountain lion owned by his uncle. Toothless is fiercely loyal to Hiccup, and it is a bond that feels earned rather than assigned to him. Which makes him all the more lovable. Consider me a believer in Dreamworks projects now, at least with this franchise. I can’t wait to see more of Toothless (and the other dragons) in the sequel, due in 2014.
DRACO IN “DRAGONHEART”
How can you not love a dragon that sounds exactly like James Bond and Professor Henry Jones, Sr.? That’s what happens when you hire Sean Connery as the voice of your central character. “Dragonheart” is about the passing of old ways, both on and offscreen. The story is about the last dragon of its kind teaming up with an old, obsolete knight (Dennis Quaid) to eke out an existence conning villagers. Behind the scenes, Draco was at first created using antiquated puppetry methods by the Jim Henson Studio, the guys that brought us the Muppets and “Dark Crystal”. When the budget began to overrun, producers sought a new director to take charge. In came Rob Cohen, who proposed a then-revolutionary idea of doing the dragon in full CGI. The results were pretty spectacular for the time, earning an Oscar nomination for visual effects. That’s only part of the reason why the film works. It was Connery who really lent an immensely weighty, yet playful presence to the film, making us care about Draco and his poignant descent into the twilight years of a once proud and majestic breed.
ELLIOT IN “PETE’S DRAGON”
When I was a wee toddler, I already had a thing for dragons. That’s mostly due to this Walt Disney production, a combination of live-action and traditional hand-drawn animation. I missed “Pete’s Dragon” on its theatrical release, but I remember driving my parents nuts demanding to watch it on the VCR over and over and over again. They must’ve really hated this flick. Time has not been kind, as it’s now more a curio than a classic. The animation is crude even by 1977 standards, no doubt due to Disney’s “make-it-for-cheap” policy during that period, which saw the studio going through one of its lowest points both artistically and financially. Yet Elliot still holds a special place in my heart. It’s not just nostalgia either. There’s just something inherently huggable about him, what with his gentle, goofy demeanor and happy stoner looks. Charlie Callas’ voicework also brought an easygoing charm to the role. The character is probably the only thing that has survived the decades as a watchable aspect of the movie. Who knows, if I ever have kids, they might one day drive me (half) nuts demanding to watch the adventures of Pete and his not-so imaginary friend, over and over and over again.
FALKOR IN “THE NEVERENDING STORY”
For a dragon that has its roots in Germany, Falkor sure has a lot of Chinese attributes. For one, he is known as a luckdragon. This breed is renowned for their uncanny good fortune in everything that they do. A handy trait to have if you ever bring one to the Genting Resorts World casino. Then there is Falkor’s look, which slightly resembles the traditional Chinese depiction of lions (see the lion dance designs). In the original German book he’s based on (by Michael Ende), the character was drawn like the classical Chinese dragon, and subsequently evolved in the American novelisation to look like a lion. The film version, directed by Wolfgang Peterson, saw a redesign to give him more canine features. Essentially making him a giant flying puppy. With fiery breath. All that adds up to make Falkor a dragon every child would want as a pet. Although the effects look terribly dated by today’s standards, back in 1984 “The Neverending Story” was the most expensive movie ever made outside of the US. It does showcase a fair bit of imaginative visuals, and Falkor is the one taking us on a literal flight of fancy. Now close your eyes, hum that theme song by Limahl, and tell me you don’t feel like you’ve been transported back to a more innocent, magical time.
MUSHU IN “MULAN”
Okay, here’s a proper Chinese dragon. Only it speaks American. And sounds like a black dude. Disney’s “Mulan” may be about the legendary fable of a peasant girl in China who disguised herself as a male soldier to protect her ailing father. But its sensibilities are every inch Western, right down to the whole female empowerment spiel the studio loves to shove down people’s throats. And this version of Hua Mulan comes with the standard Disney sassy sidekick, played by comedian Eddie Murphy. To be honest, the film is too formulaic for my liking. The saving grace is Mushu the mini dragon. Actually, he’s supposed to be an ancestral guardian spirit, demoted to the rank of gong-banger and incense burner. Mushu has inadequacy issues, which Murphy makes full use of to pretty amusing effect. He’s really the best part of the show, as the title character is a bit of a bore. Every time things start getting a little too ponderous, Mushu shows up and lightens the mood. Who knew dragons could be funny?
Electroshadow wishes you a very HAPPY CHINESE NEW YEAR! Gong Hei Fatt Choy! May the Year of the Water Dragon bring you health, wealth, laughter and love…