CG animation has come a long way over the years thanks to the revolutionary work of special effects studios like Industrial Light & Magic. By the mid '90s, ILM had created a convincing water-based alien in 'The Abyss,' an inhuman killing machine in 'Terminator 2: Judgment Day,' and herds of jaw dropping dinosaurs in 'Jurassic Park.' But it was the 1996 fantasy film 'Dragonheart' that built on all of their previous efforts to develop Draco -- a convincing CG dragon based on the vocal delivery and facial performance of Sean Connery.
The story follows a dragon slayer named Bowen (Dennis Quaid), a bad-tempered warrior determined to exterminate every dragon from the face of the Earth. But when he encounters the last dragon in existence -- the proud Draco (Connery) -- he teams up with the reluctant beast to swindle money from gullible villages. The two form a begrudging friendship that's interrupted by the tyranny of King Einon (David Thewlis). With the help of a wandering minstrel (Pete Postlethwaite), a beautiful peasant named Kara (Dina Meyer), and the oppressed villagers of Einon's kingdom, Bowen and Draco must find a way to defeat the king and restore honor to the land.
When I first saw 'Dragonheart' in 1996, I left the theater shaking my head. I was hoping to find a fantasy epic, but instead found a family adventure-comedy. I hadn't seen the film since, but years later, I'm now a family man myself (as evidenced by the three-year-old terrorizing my house), and as such I thought I might be in a better mindset to handle what the film actually is. Sadly, I discovered a whole slew of other problems. To my eyes, 'Dragonheart' is a hammy and plodding film that has more in common with a silent-era slapstick comedy than it does a modern sci-fi fantasy. Further watering things down are the wacky relationship mechanics of '80s buddy-cop flicks. But don't get me wrong, it's not the comedy that bothers me -- it's that the film seems to be constantly grasping for its identity, never knowing when to push for drama or pause for laughs.
The resulting emotional see-saw tried my patience at every turn as I found myself completely disenchanted with the fantasy of this fictional world. Director Rob Cohen ('The Fast and the Furious,' 'XXX' seems caught in the limitations of a childhood story. His version of sentimentality is sappy, his villains are clichéd, and his tension is laughable. King Einon should be a threatening force whose presence is felt at all times -- instead, Cohen has him sneer and rant when he needs the audience to feel intimidated. On top of this, the extent of Cohen's thematic depth is to dress the heroic Bowen in black armor and the evil Thewlis in white -- a not-so-subtle trick that's been exploited time and time again in much better films than this.
On the upside, all of the actors seem to be having a good time and Quaid and Connery have an exciting chemistry. While Quaid speaks with an insufferable growl, his portrayal of Bowen is certainly endearing. And to his credit, Connery doesn't just dial in a vocal performance -- instead he injects Draco with a surprising amount of bravado and humility. I just wish the two had a better director and a stronger script.
At least 'Dragonheart' enthralled my son -- as a family film, it delivers the fun and the adventure that kids should love. And wrapped in the warm glow of notalgia, others who saw the film when they were younger will likely be more forgiving than me. Alas, this one just isn't my style. I couldn't wait for the credits to roll so I could move on to something with more directorial polish.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Universal Studios Home Entertainment brings 'Dragonheart' to Blu-ray on a Region Free, BD50 disc inside a blue eco-lite keepcase. At startup, the disc goes straight into the movie without a main menu screen. Use the remote to access the menu options while watching the movie.
'Dragonheart' switches sides and lands on Blu-ray with what appears to be the same 1080p/VC-1 encode (2.35:1) as its HD DVD counterpart, which is acceptable but not entirely satisfying. Fine object details are fairly well-defined for a majority of the runtime, mostly in daylight sequences. Costuming and the stone architecture of the castle have an attractively distinct quality with very nice texture, but a large portion of the film is noticeably blurry and poorly resolved, mostly during the CG sequences. Primaries are pleasing to the eye and upbeat, with wonderfully bold and warm secondary hues seen in many interiors. Contrast and brightness are well-balanced and accurate, although blacks can look pretty digitized with some ugly crush. I couldn't detect any actual edge enhancement, but some shots show slight ringing around the edges. In the end, this guilty pleasure is in need of a remaster.
Five years since its high-def debut, the CG fantasy-adventure is promoted to a DTS-HD Master Audio codec. Comparatively, this new soundtrack offers some minor improvements over its Dolby Digital-Plus counterpart, but it still doesn't quite match some of the best high-rez track we've heard since. Low-frequency effects are more robust and room-penetrating, providing every stomp of Draco's paws and every flap of his wings with serious depth and power. However, it does also sound distractingly boomy with a bit of distortion. Dynamics remain clean and sharp though they never really exhibit much range or push too far into the upper frequencies, leaving action pieces somewhat dry and flat. Other the other hand, dialogue is well-prioritized and consistent with a good but not remarkable presence in the soundstage. The rears are utilized on occasion when Draco flies overhead with appreciable directionality and panning, but those instances also seem quaint and somewhat gimmicky, never actually generating a convincing soundfield.
The special features are recycled from previous home video releases.
Starring Dennis Quaid and the voice of Sean Connery as Draco, 'Dragonheart' is a fun, lighthearted fantasy adventure tale about living life with purpose and goodness in one's heart. Unfortunately, the family flick hasn't aged all that well, worth visiting more for being an early CGI spectacle than anything else. The Blu-ray lands with a passable picture quality in need of a fresh remaster, but the audio remains the highlight of this high-def presentation. Supplements are the same from previous releases, but fans will likely be satisfied with the price paid.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.