The Hobbit author J.R.R. Tolkien described dragon Smaug as “a most specially greedy, strong and wicked worm.” The Flight of the Conchords have a song called Albi the Racist Dragon, and on Dragon Day at Cornell University, an effigy of one of the giant beasts is burned while students shout and dance.
They can be fiery, fearsome creatures. “Noble dragons don’t have friends,” writes Terry Pratchett in Guards! Guards! “The nearest they can get to the idea is an enemy who is still alive.”
It’s not hard to understand why the folks on Game of Thrones are wary of Daenerys Targaryen’s (Emilia Clarke) brood of the beasts when she spouts off lines like, “When my dragons are grown, we will take back what was stolen from me and destroy those who wronged me! We will lay waste to armies and burn cities to the ground!” Then there’s Bryagh, the serpentine villain of The Flight of Dragons who not only insults the movie’s heroes before dispatching them, he also gobbles up the eggs of other dragons!
Maybe if characters in movies paid more heed to the advice given by author Steven Brust — “Always speak politely to an enraged dragon” — then movies and TV wouldn’t have to offer up such a wide array of ways to rid the world of dragons. Look on IMDb, there are dozens of titles containing the phrase “dragon slayer.”
The 2010 animated hit How to Train Your Dragon begins in a remote Viking village where killing a dragon is “everything.” It focuses on Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), a kind- hearted boy who captures one of the flying behemoths and discovers two things: One, he can’t bring himself to kill it, and two, that dragons aren’t the fearful monsters everyone thinks they are. He becomes a Dragon Whisperer and the movie shows the serpentine creatures in a different light than the abysmal brutes usually seen on screen.
This weekend, How to Train Your Dragon 2 adds to the list of cinematic dragons who are more misunderstood than actually evil.
The 1941 Disney flick The Reluctant Dragon features a dragon that would rather recite poetry than cause havoc. “You’ve got to be mad to breathe fire,” he says, “but I’m not mad at anybody.”
In the live-action DragonHeart, a fire-breather must team with a dragon-slaying knight (Dennis Quaid) to end an evil king’s rule. When the giant serpent is accused of eating an adversary, he is indignant. “I merely chewed in self-defense, but I never swallowed.”
Eddie Murphy lent some comedic relief to the 1998 animated movie Mulan as the tiny, blue-horned Mushu. He may be the size of the Geico gecko, but don’t mention it. “I’m a dragon, not lizard. I don’t do that tongue thing.”
Synopsis: Picking up where An Unexpected Journey left off, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) join with Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his army of 12 dwarves. Their goal is to traverse Mirkwood, Esgaroth and Dale to locate the fire-breathing dragon Smaug who hoards the wealth of the Lonely Mountain. On the way they battle giant spiders, make a deal with Bard the bowman (Luke Evans), the descendant of the original Lord of Dale, and some helpful and not-so-helpful elves (including a good lookin’ and deadly She-Elf played by Evangeline Lilly).
• Richard: 4/5
• Mark: 2/5
Richard: Mark, despite the sense of mild confusion I felt as I tried to piece the story together, I really enjoyed The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. It took a lot of backstory to get to the fifth film based on Middle-earth and its inhabitants and it will help if you know your Shire from your Sauron or your Skin Changers.
But having said that, Peter Jackson has crafted a great action adventure with the same consistency of tone, style and spirit that runs through the LOTR and Hobbit movies. They feel like story shards chipped off the same block.
Mark: Richard, there are two kinds of people in this world — those who admire and enjoy the work of J.R.R. Tolkien, and those who are repelled by his neo-medieval, Druidic nonsense.
You can guess which camp I fall into. I sat through the Rings trilogy under great duress, and skipped the first Hobbit entirely. So the only question was how much I would loathe this picture. The good news is: not that much. True, the entire movie and everyone in it needs a haircut, but the set pieces worked, especially the barrel escape down the river and the entire dragon sequence. But the movie felt so long I could have flown to Tokyo for dinner and gotten back in time for the end credits.
RC: I think fans will find the length just about right… non-fans, maybe not so much. This one worked for me. There’s a Richard Attenborough old school epicness about it. It is about good and evil without troubling nuance or antiheroes.
Perhaps because Englishman Tolkien penned these action adventure stories during the Second World War when evil was clear-cut, his books are ripe with allegory but straightforward in their approach to morality and good vs. evil.
MB: A good point, but maybe it’s precisely that serious, hectoring tone that always turned me off. Evangeline Lilly, on the other hand, did not turn me off — quite the opposite.
She really holds the screen even if her ears need cosmetic surgery. But the ending — a cliffhanging cheat, if you ask me — elicited a collective groan from the audience and made the experience feel incomplete. Did you like the dark look of the picture?
RC: I did like the look. It’s darker in tone than the Hobbit books for sure, but I thought it suited Peter Jackson’s take on the story. I also liked the Walking Dead style battle scenes — lots of arrows in heads.
MB: I kept hoping for someone to show up with a gun and put them all out of my misery.