After the groundwork laid already this summer by Twister and Mission: Impossible, there's no use or point in mentioning that in DragonHeart the plot-surprises are few, or that you can expect astounding special effects. (Hollywood is three-for-three so far.) But DragonHeart succeeds, in parts, where those other films don't--as a film not intent on overwhelming the audience with the brilliance of its technical wizardry, but as entertainment concerned with being inviting and familiar.
The mood doesn't whip the audience into frenzied, rabid submissiveness--you probably won't cheer once during the entire film--but it reaches out on another level, asking us to participate in its humanity. It wants, as the ad campaign promises, to make us "believe." There may be state-of-the-art computer graphics as far as the eye can see, but what gives the movie its oomph is an intangible quality--a human touch that teeters on, but never crosses into, corniness.
Watching DragonHeart, I had little difficulty in predicting most of the comic lines and pun-addled sight gags before they occurred, if only by a few seconds. I say this not to brag--almost anyone older than 12 could probably lay claim to the same--but to explain how, despite this fact or maybe even because of it, I enjoyed the movie. Director Rob Cohen taps into what it takes to stir the imagination of children, to make them trust in the possibility of magic, to experience a sense wonder with a reckless, giddy energy. You simply can't do that by going too far over their heads.
Cohen is a schmaltzy director who seems to know just when to reign in emotional excesses and pile on almost-outrageous kitsch. (His last film, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story was a phenomenal, underrated success that captured the mood of its topic better than the details of Lee's life.) With DragonHeart, Cohen establishes an emotional connection between his audience and the subject matter in making what may be the best "transitional" kids' film of the season: For a host of 13-year-olds, it may serve as the passage away from uncool animated Disney musicals (they can, like us, reacquaint themselves with sophisticated cartoons later in adulthood) and toward years of enjoyment with Hardy Boys mysteries, or Dungeons & Dragons, or whatever kids do nowadays to escape to a world of their own creation.
And despite what the action-packed, tightly edited trailers suggest, Cohen accomplishes his task without any horrific, frightening, or bloody attacks. (Cohen seems to have worked hard to get the PG-13 rating, and damn it, he delivers.)
Dragons occupy a special place in the collective Western mythology: The dragon in the legend of the Hesperides guarded golden apples thought to be the symbol of immortality; George, the patron saint of Britain, achieved fame by allegedly slaying an offending serpent in the fourth century; even the greatest epic poem in the English language concerns a rascally brigand named Beowulf dispatching a fire-breathing monster named Grendel.
DragonHeart brushes on all these legends, but it also maintains a link to the Arthurian tradition of justice and compassion. Bowen (Dennis Quaid), a knight-errant in the year A.D. 996, has devoted a dozen years of his life to slaying dragons. He hates all dragons because he believes that one, Draco (voiced by Sean Connery), bewitched his young charge, King Einon (David Thewlis), by giving Einon half of his dragon heart years earlier. Rather than ruling benevolently, as Bowen had taught him, Einon has aged into a scourge, a cruel and ruthless tyrant.
As it turns out, Bowen has been murdering dragons needlessly; he's Don Quixote with a brogue, tilting at serpents instead of windmills under the mistaken belief that Einon would have been an honorable ruler but for Draco's interference. But Einon really is just a bad seed after all, a heartless despot and poor student of chivalry. (Think of Patrick MacGoohan's Edward Longshanks in Braveheart for an idea of the mold from which Einon was cast--they both seem to think thatched roofs were made for burning.)
Draco, now the last surviving member of his species--the California condor of the Middle Ages--forms an alliance with Bowen, and the two cross the countryside bilking fearful villagers out of protection money: Bowen pretends to kill Draco, and Draco pretends to die. The decision to put this scam at the heart of the relationship between the two heroes--to turn a Medieval fantasy into a dragon vaudeville show--is the riskiest gambit the movie takes (not to mention a direct lift from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly).
But it also sets the tone necessary to make DragonHeart work like it does--as an accessible buddy picture, where the interplay between Bowen and Draco, and not the sketchy arc of the plot, form the nucleus around which we judge the film's success. Cohen develops that relationship with basic building blocks, and while he doesn't leave much meat on the bone for us to chew over otherwise, the mix of sweetness and whimsy carries his story.
You have to credit Quaid (and, to a lesser degree, Connery) for bringing the requisite emotional content to the table. Draco doesn't exist in the physical world at all--he's completely computer-generated--and the fact that Quaid was able to react convincingly to empty space shouldn't be overlooked.
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The entire cast manages to give interesting performances within the limitations of the narrow range of emotions their parts call for. Thewlis, who looks like Kid in the Hall Scott Thompson with a pageboy haircut, gnashes his teeth mercilessly. Ever since Alan Rickman's Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, swashbuckling bad guys have had to be both gifted at wielding a sword and insufferably petulant. It no longer suffices that bad guys be lazy and venal and ugly; now, they have to give the hero a run for his money, and Thewlis is convincing.
Dina Meyer, looking like the result of a cross-pollination of Helena Bonham Carter and Rene Russo, plays a spirited wench who plots to overthrow the king without becoming a shrill damsel-in-distress. Probably the best performance, though, comes from Pete Postlethwaite as a Sancho Panzalike monk who tags along to provide both comic relief and to serve as the film's moral compass. His presence assures that a young audience always keeps one eye on the gentle, politically correct proselytizing that Cohen and his screenwriter, Charles Edward Pogue, superimpose over the violent swordplay.
I hope Cohen wasn't trying to make a timeless epic on the order of The Once and Future King or even Morte D'Arthur, for if he was, he's failed miserably. What he has managed to come up with is a primer on how to nurture an intellectual fantasy life complete with a sense of honor and duty. And though DragonHeart is best aimed at children, he makes it enjoyable by adults as well. That alone may be the hat trick of the season--a film for kids that won't make adults wretch.
DragonHeart. Universal. Dennis Quaid, David Thewlis, Sean Connery. Written by Charles Edward Pogue. Directed by Rob Cohen. Now playing.