We've talked a bit about revisionist takes on genre already this week, albeit in terms of novels. It's only appropriate, then, that we tackle revisionist cinema, as well.
It took us two days to make it through today's Monsters & Mullets feature. If we hadn't been watching it for the purposes of review, we probably never would have finished it. Dragonslayer's not great but it's also not terrible - at least, not on par with a few of our other features. Dragonslayer, however, is this: an hour and forty minutes of draggy-ass dull. Many of our other features have been enlivened, if not redeemed, by something: a charismatic actor, or maybe an interesting sub-plot. But Dragonslayer has none of these things. Indeed, Dragonslayer has the opposite of these things: bored actors and boring storylines.
The movie also stands as a testament to the problems inherent in revisionist storytelling. In theory, Dragonslayer is a film that puts paid to the old fashioned hero quest, being as it's about an unlikable and ineffective guy who thinks he's gaining power and authority but ultimately, discovers he's been nothing more than the pawn of the people he trusted. This is really interesting stuff, folks! This has the potential to redefine the entire genre!
Again, in theory, Dragonslayer is a mischeveious, revisionist take on the high fantasy hero quest. In practice, it's a boring, derivative, billion-hour-long slog about the unlikable doing the unthinkable in service of the unknowable. Let's have at it, shall we?
Welcome to Medieval Kingdom. Medieval Kingdom has been the hunting ground for a big ol' dragon since time immemorial. As long as it is regularly fed virgins, the dragon can be kept from wreaking general havoc. (Insert gratuitous scene of pretty girl being eaten by a dragon) So the king draws the names of future sacrifices by means a regular lottery. Naturally, the wealthy can buy their daughters a pass, so it's only the peasant girls who are in danger.
We join a delegation led by a "boy," with weird intonation and flat affect, journeying to a castle to seek the assistance of an aged sorcerer. Surprise surprise, the aged sorcerer has a spirited young apprentice. The sorcerer agrees to help. Enter the villain, a bored-looking Sheriff of Nottingham-type (so much so, in fact, that I'm just going to call him that - see left) with, you guessed it, an English accent. The Sheriff exposits a bit about how it is in the aristocracy's interest to maintain the status quo and keep the dragon alive. Then he kills the sorcerer with the sorcerer's own knife. The Sorcerer's Apprentice, our Adonis-bowl-cutted hero (and I'm just going to call him Wart, because you totally get the picture, right?) inherits the sorcerer's magical glowing pendant, hooray! Meanwhile, the only useful party member - the sorcerer's aged servant (let's call him Duncan) - cremates the sorcerer, carefully collects his ashes and secrets them about his person. This will be important, eventually, but it's such an obvious first-act gun that the film then tries to bore its audience to death so we'll forget about it, much as Wart (who's not only useless but also astoundingly stupid) will forget.
All that took about eight hours to get through. We have at least another seventy-two before the end credits roll.
Wart and the old servant Duncan head back to the dragon-benighted land. On the way Wart learns that affect-free boy with the weird voice is actually a girl, #whocouldhaveseenthatonecoming, when he catches a glimpse of her boob. (Dragonslayer might be the only Disney film with a naked breast in it. I'm not going to check that on Google, though. You understand.) The Sheriff of Nottingham, meanwhile, is tracking the party and finally kills Duncan with an arrow to the gut. Wart foresees Duncan's demise but is powerless to prevent it. While the Sheriff braces himself against a tree and tries not to fall asleep, Duncan implores Wart to take the ashes of the dead sorcerer and throw them into "the burning water." Wart finds this very confusing, but his puzzlement (and ours) is only increased when Duncan directs Wart to "peel it off me." Worst last words ever. So Wart peels the bag-o-sorcerer off Duncan and Duncan croaks.
Wart, Affect-free Former Boy, and the other journeying peasants stop by the dragon's lair before heading into their Bucolic Peasant Village. Wart experiments with the sorcerer's glowing pendant and causes a rockslide that manages simultaneously to seal off the only entrance to the dragon's lair and take out a couple of extras. Whoops. But, whatever; the dragon's stuck inside and everyone is free! Free! Bucolic Peasant Village throws a big ol' party. Affect-free Former Boy immediately changes into a dress, because now that she's safe it's okay that she's a girl, and she and Wart share a Bucolic Peasant Dance.
Such peace surely cannot last. The Sheriff rides into town with a couple of heavies at his side, captures Wart and drags him before the king.
The king, who's remarkably forthcoming considering the fact that Wart's completely unthreatening, explains the the dragon is ancient and the state policy is, and I swear I'm not making this up, just to keep feeding it virgins until it dies of old age. Wart, bless him, finds this about as ludicrous and anyone with half a brain might, so the king takes his magic pendant away from him and tosses Wart into a dungeon.
The king's daughter comes to visit our sulking hero. Wart the ever-tactful gives her an earful about how she's safe because the king would never allow her name to be entered into the dragon-chow lottery. Princess flips out and confronts the king, who cracks after approximately three seconds of interrogation. MEANWHILE the ground around the dragon's lair begins to steam and shake. Bucolic Peasant Village and castle alike are tumbled about - could it be that the GARGANTUAN MAGICAL MONSTER is strong enough to force itself through a piddling landslide? My god, it just might.
The princess, now in her own sulk, frees Wart amidst all the confusion. The Sheriff and the king both try to stop him from escaping, but Wart manages to nab a horse (because it fell over during the earthquake and was just lying on the ground. My hand to god, that's what actually happens; there's a careful establishing shot to ensure that the audience knows why there's a horse lying on the ground!) and make tracks back to Bucolic Peasant Village. The dragon, meanwhile, escapes and goes on a rampage. A priest (played by the Emperor Palpatine!) goes forth to decry the dragon as an agent of Satan and gets charred for his trouble, but for some reason this little episode converts some of the onlooking peasants to Christianity. This will not ever actually be important, except insofar as film thinks it's saying something profound about the end of the age of magic and the dawn of the age of faith, or something.
So. The day of the lottery comes. All the virgins in all the land assemble to see the name drawn. The camera, rather wonderfully, lingers on this group of comely maidens and their totally-not-at-all-anachronistic Farrah Fawcett hairstyles. The name is drawn... and it's the princess! The king invalidates the decision while the crowd jeers and draws another name. It's... the princess! Indeed, every name in the bucket-o-dragon-bait is her name! She rigged the lottery! Everyone flips out. While they're distracted, Wart slips into the castle to find his pendant. The king surprises him but instead of killing him on sight or throwing him back into the dungeon, he gives Wart the pendant and begs him to save the princess.
Wart goes back to Bucolic Peasant Village and asks the ironmonger to make him a dragon killinstick. While the two forge an iron spear with some really irksome visual effects, Former Boy slips out to collect dragon scales (dragons, unlike all other reptiles, apparently shed scales one at a time) to make Wart a shield. In so doing she discoveres that the dragon... has babies! (Agamogenesis?) She returns with this disheartening news. But Wart, armed with his killinstick and his shield, is confident that he can save the day anyway. Wart and Former Boy share a romantic moment outside the dragon's lair, admitting that they kind of like each other and then kissing. Well, "kissing." Of all the unimpassioned smooches ever committed to celluloid, this might be the most unimpassioned, the most impure. Ick. Whatever. He leaves.
SO MUCH MOVIE LEFT TO GO. Bear with me.
The princess is chained to a pole stuck outside the dragon's lair. As Wart steps forward to free her, the Sheriff of Nottingham appears. Even though Wart has been mandated by the king himself to slay the dragon, the Sheriff is not having it. They fight. The Sheriff beats the ever living crap out of Wart, who is not only a terrible magician but also totally useless as a warrior. And yet, because he never watched The Incredibles and thus never learned the danger of monologuing, the Sheriff stops in the middle of the fight, relaxes against the dragon-chow pole, and starts chatting. So Wart runs him through. Everyone has the good grace to look a little surprised by this.
Wart managed to free the princess during the fight, but instead of scampering like any sane person, she runs into the dragon's lair. The last we hear of her is her shrill scream. After polishing off the Sheriff, Wart enters the lair... and stumbles across her body. Yup, she's dead. And what's more, she's being chewed on by the cutest dragon babies this side of Etsy. Wart, desperate a) to prove what a fluke his defeat of the competent Sheriff was and b) how intensely unlikable he is, starts fighting the baby dragons. Thus does the world's most gormless hero punch a baby dragon to death. This while also nearly losing to the baby dragons. Exhausted after his battle with baby dragons, Wart lies on the cave floor and pants. Yeah, I hope you're proud of yourself, you nimrod.
Eventually he gets up and goes in search of the adult dragon. He finds a giant lake with flames dancing across its surface. For whatever reason (see, "gormless hero" and "baby dragon punching," above), this doesn't get either of Wart's synapses firing. While he stands around wondering why the words "burning" and "water" seem so, I dunno, important, the mama dragon rises from the water behind him. Miraculously (or tragically, depending on your perspective), Wart gets his dragon-scale shield up in time to avoid becoming the dragon's next snack. They chase each other around the cave for a while. Mama dragon pauses to get upset about her dead babies, as she should. Wart hides behind a rock and tosses his spear and shield aside in frustration, because apparently his self-preservation instinct begins and ends with "punch baby dragons to death." Somehow he pulls himself together long enough to skewer the dragon a couple of times, but she shrugs his attacks off and breaks his magical dragon killinstick. OH NOES.
An incredibly abrupt transition finds us outside the dragon's lair, in broad daylight. (It was night when Wart went in.) As the camera pans over the scenery, we see the shield fried to a crisp, the broken spear, and finally Wart himself, lying face-down amidst the scree. Alas, he's not dead. (He's not only not dead, but his injuries seem to consist of a boo-boo to the face. Ladies and gentlemen, your hero.) Former Boy finds him and takes him home. He sulks. She's all "we should just leave." Her dad chimes in, in full agreement. So... they pack up and, like, bugger off. Seriously. They just leave. As they load a boat, however, Wart looks into the water and has some sort of premonition. Or maybe he just finally remembers the thing about throwing the old sorcerer's ashes into burning water. Whatever happens inside his brain (and he's probably even fuzzier about it than we are), it's enough to inspire him to run back to the dragon's lair, shouting cryptic sentence fragments back at his incredibly confused partner.
Wart forbids Former Boy from entering the dragon's cave, but she tells him to go soak his head, reminding him that she "used to be a man" (well... sort of) and therefore isn't afraid. They enter the lair. He tells her not to move while he leaves to throw the ashes into the burning water. She ignores him and starts wandering around, eventually stumbling across the bodies of the baby dragons and the princess. Forgetting that she used to be a man and is therefore not afraid of things, she freaks out and starts screaming and running around. Wart throws the ashes into the water. What follows are some legitimately cool special effects, as the water starts burning green and then the elderly sorcerer rises from the dead and walks across the water toward Wart. Wart, genius that he is, is all "guh?" The sorcerer, rather than smacking Wart upside the head, is sweetly avuncular and does nothing more than take his pendant back. Wart realizes he never had any real power but was merely channeling his dead master's. This, the death of his life-long dream to become a powerful sorcerer, doesn't bother him.
The dragon surfaces. The girl screams. Everyone runs out of the cave. The dragon takes to the air. The sorcerer tells Wart and Former Boy that his reincarnation is temporary, and that Wart must destroy the pendant, which he hands the idiot, when the time is right. Although the sorcerer seems to know what he's doing, he does also trust Wart to know when this "right time" is. Former Boy and I have our doubts.
The sorcerer teleports himself to the top of a mountain and calls forth a mass of thunderheads. This, like the reanimation sequence, is legitimately cool-looking and fairly effective. Maybe I'm just a sucker for a good ol' fashioned glamour shot of a wizard with lightning shooting out of his hands? Anyway, the sorcerer and the dragon battle, and the sorcerer is a complete bad-ass. Meanwhile, Former Boy starts freaking out that the sorcerer told Wart to destroy the pendant and actually snatches it off Wart's neck and tries to bash it with a rock. While the sorcerer is firing lightning bolts at the dragon, Wart wrestles his girlfriend for control of a rock, all "no, he told me that I'd know when the time is right!" One of these fights is slightly more interesting than the other. Eventually the dragon grabs the sorcerer and flaps away. Wart wrests the stone from Former Boy's grasp and, after shooting the sorcerer a panicked look, smashes the pendant.
The sorcerer explodes.
Really. That's what happens. The sorcerer blows up, causing the dragon to catch on fire. It tumbles from the sky, Smaug-like, and smashes into a lake. I guess the heat of the explody-sorcerer-fire is so great that it boils away all the liquid? Because the next shot is of the dead dragon, lying upside down with about ten miles of really squishy entrails goozing all over the place, on a totally dry plain. Wart and Former Boy stare at the dead dragon for a while. Then the Bucolic villagers, now all Christians, show up and sing hymns about Jesus? And then a litter carried by palace servants appears. The servants set the litter down and the king steps out. Apparently totally unaffected by the fact that his daughter is lying dead in a cave somewhere, he gingerly picks his way over to the dragon, smushes the entrails about a bit with the tip of a sword, and is declared "dragon slayer" by a dodgy-looking priest. Everyone rolls their eyes at the and chuckles good naturedly. And... that's it. Two thousand, nine-hundred and eight minutes later, the movie is finally goddamned over.
If the filmmaker's ambition was to make a great dragon movie, Dragonslayer's filmmaker succeeded only in making a great dragon in a movie. Everything else is so incredibly lackluster. The actors seem bored and wholly disconnected from the plot; the plot is set in motion by a series of complicated and stupidly implausible events. And it all takes sooo loooong to unfold. And for what? I've argued that Dragonslayer is a revisionist take on the hero myth where the hero is dumb and unlikable and ineffective, and ultimately revealed to have been the vessel of his mentor's power. Such a role demands extremely thoughtful casting, and Peter MacNicol proves himself inadequate to the task. He barely emotes at the best of times; at worst, it's anyone's guess what he's thinking or feeling. In the absence of any sort of emotional connection between the lead and the audience, the film lacks heart. If the characters don't seem to care one way or the other what happens, why should we?
And that's where Dragonslayer really fails. Terrible things happen, but there's simply no sense of consequence. Nothing matters. His mentor is murdered in front of him and Wart is sad for all of three seconds. Wart learns that he has no true magical power; that he's been nothing more than a cat's paw for the man he trusted to teach him how to become a sorcerer... and he doesn't seem to give a shit. Hell, even the king doesn't seem to care that his daughter is lying dead in a cave, despite the fact that he overturned his own policy about killing the dragon in order to save her! It may be very po-mo how no one really cares one way or the other about anything, including each other, by the film's end... but it sure as hell doesn't make for an effective movie. This is not to say that revisionist takes on fantasy are doomed to failure, of course. Just that Dragonslayer, as revisionist fantasy, fails.
Dragonslayer isn't horrible, like Q, or appalling, like Caligula. Nor, however, is it good. Or mediocre. Or even bad. It's just so dull. All this stuff happens over the course of the film's run, and I only cared about three or four of its 108 minutes. There's no one character with enough presence to redeem any single scene, anywhere in the movie. The leads are affect-free charisma sucks, and even the villain (and one can usually depend on a Monsters & Mullets villain for quality scenery chewing) looks like he's about to trip over his own collossal boredom. Clearly someone noticed the movie's soporific qualities after filming wrapped, BECAUSE THE SCORE IS UNRELENTINGLY POUNDING. Nothing may be happening on screen, but god damn if the soundtrack ISN'T TRYING ITS LEVEL BEST TO ENGAGE, even if "engagement" means "deafening the audience."
Dragonslayer does, however, have one redeeming feature. The visual effects are, dragon-killinstick-forging-scene aside, really great. And the creature effects are bloody brilliant. The dragon is, far and away, the best part of the entire film. According to Dragonslayer's Wikipedia entry, fully twenty-five percent of the film's budget went toward realizing the dragon. And it shows. This dragon is no dude in a rubber suit. In our digital age, Dragonslayer's dragon is a powerful argument for the majesty and presence of well-executed physical creature effects. (One hopes Peter Jackson is taking notes.) The dragon is the one thing that makes this movie almost worth sitting through. Even if it does have the tiresome name "Vermithrax Pejorative."
Monsters: Dragons! One gorgeous adult and three babies.
Mullets: No mullets, but a lot of softly-curled Adonis bowl-cuts, an equally definitional hairstyle.
Hookers, Victims and Doormats: Dragonslayer's female lead is a boy for the first fifth of the movie and then, once her true gender is revealed, dons a dress and becomes yet another victim in a plot driven by the idea that all (virginal) women are inherently potential victims.
Doesn't Anyone Think This Shit Through? Where to begin? How 'bout the gender politics! Here, I'll start. In practice, a system that commodifies virginity as this one does would form the basis of a seriously screwed-up culture. I mean, really - if the one thing that makes your daughter eligible to be eaten by a dragon is her virginity, then the practical solution is to ensure that she's a virgin for as little of her life as possible. And how icky is that? The least horrible consequence woud be a culture that forced girls to become sexually active until they conceived immediately upon menarche. We're not even going to discuss the more horrific alternatives.
Don't forget, too, that Dragonslayer's hero is a man who beats a baby dragon to death. Go team.
Destroying my Childhood by Inches: There do not appear to be any plans to remake Dragonslayer.
Comprehensive Monsters & Mullets Awesomeness Spectrum Placement: I think I need to redefine the CMMAS as a Cartesian coordinate system rather than a scale, as Dragonslayer somehow manages to score a place both between and below several of our other features. Stay tuned.
HELEN MIRREN COMMANDS YOU
to try to think up successful revisionist fantasy films.