Wednesday, February 20, 2019

In Laman's Terms: Why Are Dragons So Scarce In Movies?

In Laman's Terms is a weekly editorial column where Douglas Laman rambles on about certain topics or ideas that have been on his mind lately. Sometimes he's got serious subjects to discuss, other times he's just got some silly stuff to shoot the breeze about. Either way, you know he's gonna talk about something In Laman's Terms!

Fantasy has been well-worn territory for movies going all the way back to the days of Alice Guy-Blanche. Cinematic fantasy became especially prominent once stop-motion visual effects and refined puppetry allowed beloved otherworldly creatures that were staples of fantasy literature to be brought to life. Fairies, ogres, dwarves, they've all been common staples of fantasy cinema all around the world for decades. But my personal favorite fantasy creature has been far more scarce in fantasy cinema throughout the ages, for a multitude of reasons, dragons just aren't as commonly seen in fantasy filmmaking as nearly every other type of fantasy creature you can imagine.

Part of this is because dragons aren't as humanoid of fantasy creations as, say, a fairy or even a troll. Aside from the occasional exception of somebody like Smaug in the original Hobbit book, classic versions of dragons are mostly looked at as vicious creatures who guard objects of immense amount of worth (like a captive princess or gold) rather than entities with perspectives of their own. Thus, fantasy cinema likely looked at dragons as a potential obstacle for a human protagonist to briefly face rather than something that can anchor a storyline. But probably an even bigger reason for the scarcity of dragons is that the visual effects necessary to bring them to life in live-action fantasy films were both expensive and even nonexistent for many years.

Dragons are massive creatures that cannot be brought to life simply by placing makeup on a person like you would with a fairy or even the Beast in a live-action retelling of Beauty and the Beast. The immense amount of effort and finances needed to bring dragons to live-action fantasy storytelling mean dragons were primarily limited fully animated feature like Sleeping Beauty and even then they only played small roles in the proceedings. Even these daunting obstacles didn't keep dragons from being entirely absent from pre-1980's live-action films though. In fact, one of Godzilla's most famous adversaries, King Ghidorah, is technically classified as a dragon and debuted all the way back in 1964.

Unfortunately, this kaiju is, like the hand-drawn animated dragon Elliot in the 1977 live-action Disney film Pete's Dragon, the exception, rather than the rule, in earlier cinema's attitudes towards dragons. This staple of fantasy storytelling would get a boost from the world of science-fiction once Star Wars debuted in 1977 and showed the world that modern-day visual effects wizardry could realize fantastical creatures and worlds previously thought to be impossible to bring to life. Four years after the first Luke Skywalker adventure debuted, Industrial Light & Magic, the visual effects house responsible for all the wonders seen in Star Wars, were tasked with using their VFX tools on the film Dragonslayer.

It was clear now that the visual effects hurdles that had previously prevented dragons from appearing in live-action films were no longer a problem but unfortunately, Dragonslayer ended up creating a new problem for live-action dragon movies. Specifically, the movie was a box office flop with a dismal $14.3 million domestic gross and it began a trend of live-action movies starring dragons failing to make an impact at the domestic box office. As the years went on and computer-generated imagery made it even easier to bring dragons to live-action features, the likes of Dragonheart, Dungeons & Dragons and Reign of Fire all struggled at the box office. Even a dragon-centric attempt to make the next Harry Potter with Eragon couldn't find box office success as it became the biggest dragon movie of all-time with only a middling $76.2 million.

Thankfully, fully animated cinema has been far more kind to dragons than its live-action counterpart, particularly with the trio of How to Train Your Dragon movies. The first of these movies was actually the first movie starring a dragon to cross $100 million domestically and proved that dragons weren't inherently box office poison. The presence of dragons in Dragonheart was no more of a factor to its box office demise than the presence of superheroes was to the box office failings of Green Lantern, in both cases, its the stories and marketing that turned off viewers more than anything else. That's clearly a difficult concept for movie studios to understand, hence why dragons have remained a scarce element in fantasy filmmaking over the years. Hopefully the box office success of those How to Train Your Dragon movies usher in more dragon-oriented cinema in the future, especially if it comes from the mind of director Guillermo del Toro. Del Toro has been constantly struggling to work a dragon into one of his directorial efforts, whether it's Hellboy II: The Golden Army or his proposed vision for The Hobbit, and I would absolutely love to see what his vision of dragons looks like! 

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