All of this talk (good and bad) about Elliott in ‘Pete’s Dragon’ has got me thinking about Dragons in film. Over the years we have seen some good ones but mostly we’ve dealt with a lot of BAD dragon designs. There are only a couple key factors I like to see in a great Dragon design. We’ll touch on these over the five I find to be the best of the best. And don’t expect a Five Worst list because it’s too many to choose from and I’m not doing that to myself.
And away we go…
5. Various, The Harry Potter film franchise (2001 – 2011)
In a movie universe that gave us Hippogriffs, Centaurs, Giants, Mer-people, and a Phoenix , the Harry Potter movies had no shortage of awesome creatures, races, and monsters. In the world of Harry Potter there are ten breeds of dragons that hail from all over the globe. In the movies we only got a taste of three of them. In the first movie ‘Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone’ we had the hatchling Norbert the Norwegian Ridgeback. In ‘Goblet of Fire’ Harry fought a Hungarian Horntail during the Tri-Wizard Tournament. And in the escape from Grigots Bank in ‘Deathly Hallows Part Two’, Harry and his friends rode atop a blind Ukrainian Ironbelly Dragon.
Each one of the Dragons had a unique look from each other and an imaginative back story at how it came into the story. But they all shared the same type of body style and movement of using it’s front wings as limbs, like that of a bat or pterosaur. I’ve always loved that way of movement for Dragons. It makes it a little creepy and a little alien in nature, making them truly unique in our world. I for one loved the part when the Horntail was scampering around the roof of Hogwarts, just made for a scary looking scenario. A lot of the Dragons on the list share the same trait as well as their eyes, but I’ll get into that later.
4. Smaug, Hobbit Trilogy (2012-2014)
There is something I don’t like about Smaug’s face but other than that he is one of the best Dragons on film. His size alone sends shivers up my spine. Imagine for one second a creature of that size flying over head. now add the fact it’s intelligent and can breathe fire. Now think about all that and the fact you live in a shanty in the middle of a lake. You stand no chance.
Voiced and motion-captured by Benedict Cumberbatch, Smaug is the only intelligent dragon on the list. Hollywood has always made intelligent Dragons either too human like with their eyes and soft faces or just plain too cute looking. That always makes them look horrible and takes away from the horrid monsters they can be. Smaug retains the look of a terrifying monster while still able to emote his sinister soul. As a bonus he also uses his wings as front limbs to walk and climb. Smaug is an out and out powerhouse and the closest we have to a AD&D type Dragon that doesn’t suck. (and yes I know D&D started as a rip-off of Tolkien’s work.)
3. Taro, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
A true classic, ‘The 7th Voyage of Sinbad’ had many fantastic monsters and creatures. All of the Sinbad movies from 1958 -1977 had critters lovingly made by the genius, Ray Harryhausen. This Dragon is no exception. Unlike the other Dragons on list, this Dragon has no wings and is a quadruped, but that doesn’t make it any less deadly. With brute strength and fire breath he is as pure of a Dragon you could fine in film.
Taro is also unique to the list because he was made with 100% stop motion. The stop motion movements add to Taro’s charm and made him feel 100% real, because he was. With a classic style, Taro was also the face of almost every plastic dragon toy you would find at the five and dime stores as a kid. Taro wasn’t the first Dragon in film but he was definitely the first great Dragon on celluloid.
2. Various, Reign of Fire (2002)
Reign of Fire has a premise I absolutely love. It’s post apocalyptic (which I’m always a fan) but Dragons have caused the apocalypse. After who-knows-how-long, Dragons are awaken and quickly reproduce. This knocks humans down a link on the food chain and thins the number of our herd down extremely low. Good movie with great modern weapons verse Dragon action. Plus this is a world where there are hundreds of Dragons…F’n Metal.
The Dragons are of the same design as others on the list, which have bat like movements. Again, these are smart monsters and stone cold killers that hunt their prey. The back drop of a post apocalyptic world only adds to the savagery of these killing machines and amps up the creepy factor.
1. Vemithrax Pejorative, Dragonslayer (1981)
After Taro in the ‘7th Voyage of Sinbad’, Vemithrax was the only other live action Dragon I was exposed too. This was a movie that was a weekend rental multiple times when I was a kid. So imagine watching ‘Dragonslayer’ as a kid, now imagine the let down of getting ‘Pete’s Dragon’ on those “off” weekends. Wow, I was just thinking what a great year 1981 was for dork movies. You had ‘Dragonslayer’, ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’, ‘Clash of the Titans’, ‘Cannonball Run’, ‘Escape From New York’, ‘Excalibur’, ‘Great Muppet Caper’, ‘Superman 2’, ‘American Werewolf in London’, ‘Howling’, and another big hit as a kid ‘Fox and the Hound’. (can’t watch Fox and Hound now with out sobbing at the end.)
Dragonslayer may have begun as a way for Disney to get some of that ‘Star Wars’ money, but it became so much more. The story (in a nutshell) is when a sorcerer is murdered, his young apprentice must continue his journey to a country side being terrorized by a dragon. Armed with the sorcerer’s ashes and his magic amulet he must slay the dragon and save the people of the land. Along the way he finds love, adventure, and strength…and also an awesome dragon scale shield and kick ass spear.
The plot may be loosely ‘New Hope’ like but ‘Dragonslayer’ scared the crap outta me as a kid. Especially the virgin sacrifice to Vemithrax scene. The bloody shackles still hang with me today. This movie still holds up today and is a very “feet on the ground” sword and sorcery tale. Vemithrax has a rich back story that can be read…here. Her design has endured the test of time and has inspired so many other movies and media. She was made with stop motion and practical large props and those two things done right, make my heart sing.
Trivia – Vermithrax Pejorative translated from Latin, means “The Wyrm of Thrace that makes things Worse”.
Man, now I’m amped to watch this movie again this weekend. Here’s the trailer.
Now, looking at this list I did nothing to truly defend the design of Elliott and in fact 4 out of the 5 dragons I picked are very similar. My list is just of the dragons that I like and I feel were done very well in cinema. With that said I still think the design of Elliott from ‘Pete’s Dragon’ is perfect for what it is and is very imaginative. Can’t wait to see the movie and I hope it breaks the stigma I have for the original.