In many ways, “Dragonslayer” is a realistic fairy tale. All of the classic pieces are here: heroes, bad guys, monsters, virgins in peril, mysticism and staggering odds.
However, we–some might say refreshingly–aren’t talking Tolkien or C.S. Lewis here. The old world of paganism is indeed changing. Magic is in rapid decline, and religion (Christianity) is on the rise. And like the cantrips they wield, those considered sorcerers are also nearly extinct. But not quite…
“Dragonslayer” opens with the old conjurer Ulrich (Sir Ralph Richardson), living in seclusion with his apprentice Galen — played decently by “Ally McBeal’s” Peter McNicol. As magical sidekicks go, Galen is not a hugely successful apprentice, fumbling with basic spells as he keeps the castle tidy. However, it isn’t long before the two receive visitors.
Led by a “boy” named Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), a small party seeks the mage’s counsel on their homeland’s dragon management policy. Perhaps the last of its kind, the dragon Vermithrax has long-extorted the kingdom of Urlund — trading virgins white in exchange for sparing crops and villages from destruction. So what the desperate group wants is simple: kill the dragon, save the world, etc.
Yet before the party can strike out, Ulrich dies unexpectedly. And it falls to Galen to seal his master’s commitment — armed only with Ulrich’s ashes, and a mystic amulet, which sporadically grants Galen magical powers. But upon reaching Urlund, Galen discovers (among other things) that the king’s politics are as dangerous as any serpent, and is soon ducking hizzoner’s wrath instead of monsters.
I won’t reveal more of “Dragonslayer,” except to say that Galen faces the dragon twice and falls in love. The rest you’ll have to discover on your own. This is what real storytelling has to offer.
However, I will volunteer that “Dragonslayer” features some of the best visual effects of the 80s. My reasoning for this, like judging anything classic, is how it endures over time. Showcasing a fine blend of models, puppetry and blue screen, George Lucas’ ILM squad–in their first non-“Star Wars” gig–does an incredible job bringing the dragon to life. It’s body and fire breath are fantastic to witness, and even tops most CGI effects used today.
And in today’s glut of so-called “effects films” featuring all CGI and no story, “Dragonslayer” is a reminder that a balance between the two is indeed possible. Now if we can only get Hollywood to remember it.