Dragonheart (1996) – A Review

Dragonheart Dennis Quaid Sean Connery movie 1996
Dragonheart

Prince Einon is destined to follow in his tyrannical father’s place as King. The young prince is tutored by the noble knight Bowen (Dennis Quaid), who not only teaches him the ways of the sword, but also of honor and respect. Bowen’s hope is Einon will one day be a better King than his father.

After a battle that leaves the King dead and Einon dying, Queen Aislinn (Julie Christie) makes a deal with a dragon to save her sons life. The dragon gives Einon a piece of his heart with the promise the new young king will rule with compassion and virtue. However, this doesn’t come to pass. Twelves years later and now Einon (David Thewlis) has grown into a an evil bloodthirsty King worse than his father. He has enslaved peasants to rebuild his castle and doesn’t hesitate to kill any of them, including the father of beautiful and fiery peasant-girl Kara (Dina Meyer).

Meanwhile, Bowen has left his king, tossed away his knighthood and has become a dragonslayer whose personal mission is to kill every dragon on Earth. He’s fueled by hatred blaming that one dragon who he believes literally corrupted his pupils heart and holds it responsible for the tragedy that now blankets the once prosperous kingdom.

Comical Brother Gilbert (Pete Postlehwaite) chronicles Bowen’s extraordinary dragon-killing exploits. Kara is seeking her own personal revenge against King Einon. And after years of slaying dragons by Bowen, the dragon population has dwindled down to just one – one last particular dragon that Bowen has met before.

Dennis Quaid Dragonheart 1996 movie
Quaid about to chew up some scenery

I always thought Dragonheart came out ten to fifteen years too late or too early. This movie seemed perfect to fall in that period of the early 1980s when a wave of sword and sorcery movies washed over movie audiences. I guess they followed in the wake of Conan the Barbarian.

Or the next big window when fantasy, magic and sword films again reignited the genre and regained popularity in the 2000s (Did Gladiator restart that engine?) Dragonheart might have done much better and been more celebrated had it fell during either of those peaks. Instead it fell in the mid-90s when not many filmgoers were very interested in watching tales with noble knights, swords, talking dragons and stories set in ancient times.

It is a pretty fun idea. Sadly the script doesn’t do it justice and it’s hampered by some pretty bad acting, a lazy story and bland characters. It basically ends up being an extremely forgettable adventure that should have been so much better.

Quaid looks badly miscast in this. He handles some of the sword swinging pretty well, but when he opens his mouth he tends to come off extremely hammy and just overdoing every bit of his performance.

Dragonheart movie cast
The unlikely trio star working together – no surprise

I understand this is a fantasy movie, but I just can’t accept for a minute that Quaid is some kind of English knight in 900 A.D or whenever this is meant to take place. His turnaround from being the jaded dragonslayer and back to the shining noble knight happens so quickly it’s laughable. It’s not so much a character arc he goes through, but more like a hard right turn.

Postlehwaite attempts a lot of forced comedy relief that falls as flat as when he lands from tumbling off his horse. Meyer is in this for no reason other than to have a main girl in the cast I guess. There’s a hint of flirtation between her and Quaid, but it goes nowhere. Her character could have easily been removed completely and the movie would not have lost anything. I suppose they didn’t want this just to be a boy and his dragon story.

Thewlis is the most effective cast member as the evil Einon. We’re meant to hate him and thanks to his prissy looks and arrogant swagger we do. Christie might have seemed like a coup when they got her for this movie, but she doesn’t leave any impression in her role as the Queen mother.

Lastly Connery. He voices Draco the dragon and of course brings all the baggage of being Sean Connery with him. Everytime Draco opens his mouth I heard Connery and couldn’t think anything other than ‘that’s Connery’s voice’.

It might have helped to have used a less recognizable voice for Draco. Animated films seem to do this a lot. Instead of allowing a character to be created from the ground up they latch onto a name celebrity to help give them life and sometimes their distinctive voice is more a detriment than an asset in the creation of the illusion.

Dragonheart sword fight scene

There’s something very small and TV-movieish about everything. There’s not a sense of grand scale I would want for a tale of a dragon befriending a fallen knight. Which is a shame since the luscious score by Randy Edelman makes it sound like that’s the kind of movie it should be accompanying. It sounds perfect for a kickass dragon movie.

Director Rob Cohen doesn’t bring the excitement to any of the action and battles scenes. It’s all standard sword stuff. There’s one particular sequence of Bowen hanging from a rope being dragged by a flying Draco over a forest. Draco looks fine, but Quaid hanging on a zipline looks not the least bit convincing.

There are a few good things sprinkled throughout. This was only a few years after Jurassic Park utilized CGI to make its dinosaurs and the Draco CGI still looks pretty decent. There are times he looks somewhat flat and doesn’t look completely convincing being in a shot.

In terms of comparing it to the effects of today, Draco starts to inch into SyFy monster movie territory. But I suppose I’m more forgiving of some of the more shaky dragon shots here knowing that at the time CGI was still a relatively new tool being used in film.

Dragonheart Draco Bown sword sorcery movie
The design of Draco is pretty decent

The story of the dragonslayer and dragon forming a begrudging partnership that gradually turns into a friendship has its moments. It’s an ‘Odd Couple-ish’ movie setup. And it does pay off with some funny and emotional exchanges between Quaid and Draco. They don’t have the heft they could have, but they work in something of a rudimentary way. It could be that I’m being overly generous with those scenes since I really like this premise and I’m just willing to swallow them. I just want something to work in this!

One thing I particularly did like was their fleecing of unsuspecting villagers by playing their expected parts of the dragon threatening the village and the heroic dragonslayer happening upon these desperate people and offering to save them and kill the dragon – for payment of course. It’s sort of a The Good, The Bad and The Ugly-type of scamming relationship.

This is when Quaid’s pompous performing actually did work. I would have enjoyed seeing more of that sort of stuff. It would have been a better ride had we got to spend more time watching and enjoying the growth of their friendship rather than building to the standard ‘we must stop the King and free the people’ ending we inevitably get to.

Maybe the cost of the dragon inhibited them from using him too much.

Dennis Quaid Sean Connery knight dragon Dragonheart

In the end it’s just not very memorable and should have been much better. I can see how little kids might have liked it back in the day. You know, it looks like it could be a lot of fun! But it’s a much more unexciting movie then they probably remember.

All it really has going for it is the unique knight/dragon buddy premise, and other than a few moments here and there that relationship isn’t focused on enough. So all that’s left are dull characters in an equally dull adventure tale that doesn’t have enough excitement to hold my interest. The addition of a talking dragon doesn’t make up for that. Even if he is voiced by Sean Connery.


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5 Responses

  1. CKulik says:

    The best movie involving a dragon, for me, is still PETE'S DRAGON. In the mid 90s, true, not many people were clamoring were this or FIRST KNIGHT or any of the other miedeval sword and sorcery epics that had come to theaters.

  2. CKulik says:

    Think I remember seeing this, but then again have no intention of returning to it. (PS-Check your email, got a long-awaited gift for you!) 🙂

  3. Anonymous says:

    I was a little kid back in the day and I didn't like it. This is one of the first movies I remember thinking "This doesn't work" which is kind of a sad rites of passage, because children find far more to enoy in movies (or are just less discerning)

    I remember finding it ugly, drab, nasty I didn't care about any of the characters (though I felt a bit sorry for Thewlis) and most really dull. Nice dragon though.

    To see what might have been (Jim Henson puppets, Pierce Brosnan, a better script) read the interview with original director Patrick Read Johnson at IGN

  4. Joey2go says:

    I was a late teen at the time and I saw something quite different between the lines. Despite the simplistic story and humor, I still connected with the emotional subtext. It mirrored parallels in my life, minus the supernatural elements of course. The impact was made when it counted.

    Even though only a few elements resonated with me, the visceral effects on my person went well beyond any flawed movie making techniques involved. In that context, it made its existence worthwhile to me, as well as my dad.

    No matter how someone perceives a movie or how much all the signs on the surface point to the "obvious" conclusions of most people, others can see things quite different from the view in their own eyes. No matter what the technical quality of the content in question, it is still possible for something bigger to grow out of what was small.

    In that regard, this worked for me. Yeah, I'm in the minority in this situation; regardless, I'll stand my ground.

  5. DragonHeart's a nostalgic childhood gem to me and Draco's one of my all time favorite dragons but after reading the IGN interview with Patrick Read Johnson and Charles Edward Pogue's novelization, the film could have been a lot better if Universal hadn't butted in with their bad ideas like casting American actors in a film set in Medieval Europe (like no one would notice).

    The novelization goes in-depth with the characters, fleshes out the story, and goes at a better pace than the film, which seems a tad rushed and should have had a longer running time.

    All information about my petition can be found at this link: http://moviepilot.com/posts/3698187

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