Daily DragonHeart Review 1/5: DragonHeart makes no case for its sequels

Upon discovering there are four DragonHeart sequels, TV-VCR will be reviewing one a day across the next five business days.

DragonHeart (1996)

If you’re wondering why five DragonHeart movies exist, watching the first one is not the answer you’re looking for. Watching DragonHeart will leave you even more appalled that after DragonHeart was made, four years later someone would make another, then a few more after that. The process must have been automated somehow and no one knew how to turn it off, and here we are, terrible beasts nested upon an absurd wealth of DragonHearts.

The first thing about watching DragonHeart is that it looks like dogshit. Despite coming out in 1996, everything about it looks like it’s from at least a decade prior and cheaply at that. If someone said that the people who made Krull in 1983 shot this the year after, it wouldn’t even be a surprise.

The one exception is the dragon. The dragon also looks like dogshit, but at least it’s properly ‘90s dogshit. If a CD-ROM video game came out with this dragon in a FMV cutscene , you would’ve thought it was pretty cool, but it has aged miserably.

That Jurassic Park had come out just a year before production started makes a lot of sense. Someone saw that ILM could make some convincing giant reptile-looking things, so they decided they could finally pull off this dumb script they’d had around since 1990 through a similar mix of CGI and some practical effects, and it didn’t work out at all. In fairness, had Jurassic Park‘s Tyrannosaur had numerous conversations in high-key close-up, that probably wouldn’t have looked so hot either.

DragonHeart sees Dennis Quaid in a long and strangely blonde wig as Bowen, a knight of the Code of Chivalry. Though the film is set in England and features a largely British cast, Quaid goes the Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves route with this and doesn’t even try a British accent. (The film likewise goes the Robin Hood route of having a river battle near a waterfall, even though it makes absolutely no sense why they get in the water.) Instead, he opts for a loose impression of Harrison Ford, amping up his grumbling to play reluctant hero often in over his head. Paired with Sean Connery as the voice of Draco the Dragon, it makes for sort of a Crusades-era Last Crusade. Except, you know, not directed by one of the greatest living filmmakers.

No, this comes from director Rob Cohen. From The Fast and the Furious, to xXx, to The Skulls, the guy certainly has a talent for making a garbage movie just decent enough to needlessly spawn multiple sequels—even without the original stars—and DragonHeart is the forebearer of that breed. This is where it all began. It also foreshadows Cohen’s The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor in poorly effects-driven would-be adventure, and The Boy Next Door in featuring a May-September romance absolutely no one is rooting for. A true legend.

The same can’t be said for the dragons in DragonHeart. Though the film’s trailers and posters promised, “You will believe,” it turns out believing whether or not dragons are a legend isn’t even an issue in this world. Within the first nine minutes, a revolt has killed the king and left his teenage son and heir mortally wounded. “He’s beyond all help,” Bowen says. The queen (Julie Christie) briefly looks distraught, but her gaze slowly rises to see a little golden dragon figurine. Next shot, everyone’s already on the road to Sean Connery the Dragon’s cave, because apparently dragons can save someone who had a spike jammed in their heart and everyone already just accepts that.

Before Twilight was making vampires sparkle and play baseball, DragonHeart was ahead of the curve on taking a well-known mythological figure and giving it a couple completely arbitrary new traits. With little explanation, it’s revealed that these dragons have the absurd ability to remove half of their heart and functionally cram it into an injured human, saving them but creating a life-bond between man and dragon. The whole process takes an easy, breezy 30 seconds, and it’s so glossed over that it’s impossible to say whether one of the sequels could give us a DragonLung, or a DragonColon, so that’s hopeful.

Fast forward a dozen years later, the young monarch has aged into King David Thewlis. If you thought his using his status to skip the dragon heart transplant list was despicable, wait until you see what an asshole he’s aged into now. He’s a cruel, tyrannical shit-head, and he’s also the only good thing about this movie. Once again cribbing from Robin Hood: Men in Tights, DragonHeart sees the guy who would later be in Harry Potter elevating a villain far better than the film deserves. Bowen blames the heart for corrupting the king, and swears vengeance on the voice of James Bond.

According to the DVD commentary (by way of Wikipedia), story writer Patrick Read Johnson originally pitched the movie as “The Skin Game with a dragon in it…or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Dragon,” liking “the idea of a dragon and a knight conning villages for money.” So when Bowen finally finishes his Hunt for Draco-tober, a battle leads them into an agreement to stage phony dragon attacks, with Bowen collecting a sack of gold for “slaying” the beast before they move on to the next town.

Honestly, it’s kind of a fun idea, but it wears pretty thin pretty fast in practice. Turns out, you can only manage about three brief variations of faking a ballista death before it runs out of steam, which probably explains why the story is otherwise padded out with all this bullshit about dragon hearts and stars.

Oh, because dragon stars are the other little bonus DragonHeart needlessly tacks onto the longstanding, straightforward idea of a big, flying lizard. To sum it up, in the DH mythos, when a dragon dies, it’s judged somehow. If it was a bad dragon, it just rots. But if it was a good boy, it dissolves into dragon gas or something, then flies up into space to become a star on the Draco constellation. This has next to no bearing on the plot, but now you’re caught up on dragons.

Anyway, given that Draco and the big baddy are linked so that killing one will kill the other—and that dragons need to live nobly to become a star, which is apparently something they’re into— you can pretty much guess where this thing is headed. But you’d never guess how tonally bizarre it goes to get there.

From the opening prologue to the final scene, the film is filled with death and torture. The former king is stabbed and clubbed to death by a group of peasants on-screen; young Thewlis gets a wooden spike to the chest and later has a man’s eyes gouged out with a burning poker before, years later, unceremoniously executing him by arrow; and knights and peasants wage brutal warfare on the battlefield. Yet somehow everything with Bowen is treated as an absolute cartoon. When Draco drags him through a forest by rope, it’s pure George of the Jungle as he clunks against trees screaming. When he finally catches up to the dragon, Draco jerks the rope up to hit Bowen in the nuts. Youch! And when Bowen gets hit with a fireball? You better believe he emerges charred and smoking! It’s like if Braveheart were peppered with the internal logic of Home Alone.

There’s also a subplot involving the girl who accidentally impaled Thewlis when they were kids being caught, escaping, and helping Bowen to lead the new rebellion against their king. It keeps seeming that there’s going to be a contentious romance between them, but it’s like halfway through shooting they realized how—given that she was in her teens in the prologue, when Quaid was already a grown-ass man—it seemed a little messed up. Yeah, she’s a consenting adult now, but no one is rooting for her to get with this middle-aged man. Good call on not having them hook up. Wouldn’t have minded her getting laid with King Arthur’s ghost though, because as it is, his brief presence doesn’t add a ton.

In the end, now we know that dragons can share half their hearts with a dude and then they die and become stars. We’ll take that knowledge into tomorrow’s feature, the 2000 sequel Dragonheart: A New Beginning.

Because we anticipate needing some wiggle room in the grading of the rest of the franchise, the inane but relatively anodyne original gets a C-. Or, exactly this extra’s reaction to the movie’s grand finale:

Please help these sad nobodies and: