The one epic movie you need to watch before it leaves Netflix this week
Dragonheart isn't a big franchise like Lord of the Rings or Star Wars. But the first movie in the series is a fun, fresh little movie that has aged better than its CGI.
Here's a very 2020 way of describing a 1996 fantasy movie: Imagine if Kylo Ren became Donald Trump. That's not the central plot, but it is what kicks off an hour and 40-ish minutes of ridiculous fun that includes Sean Connery voicing a singing dragon.
Dragonheart isn't Game of Thrones (which is maybe for the better). But as a zippy, witty fantasy movie with a prolific cast and a script brimming with personality, Dragonheart is an unbelievably watchable Renn Faire adaptation of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. It's charming and sweet, and while it flip flops too much between disparate themes and tones — at times it's a class revolution picture, other times it's a wacky con-man comedy with a dragon — Dragonheart is a competent comfort watch on Netflix. And that's why you need to watch it on Netflix before it leaves on June 12.
The plot is unwieldy and hard to describe, but here's my stab at it: Dragonheart is the story of a for-hire dragon hunter, Bowen (Dennis Quaid), once a noble knight and mentor to the king's son Einon (David Thewlis). When a peasant uprising leads to the king's death and Einon injured, Bowen and Einon's mother, Queen Aislinn (Julie Christie) strike a deal with a dragon Draco (voiced by Sean Connery) to heal Einon.
Though Einon swore to be fair and just, he turns his back on the oath. Heartbroken, Bowen leaves his knighthood and hunts down dragons. When Bowen reunites with Draco, they agree to run con jobs on villages for gold, until a peasant from Einon's past, Kara (Dina Meyer) convinces Bowen to usurp Einon from his rule.
There's a lot to like in Dragonheart. The script, the characters, and Draco himself make the time spent worthwhile. Dragonheart is practically a comedy that subverts tropes but never at all feels satiric. It is never once a farce, like a Mel Brooks movie. It takes its world-building rules seriously and commits to its original ideas — the "Old Code" is a fully-realized concept before the end of the first act — which in turn gives elbow room for Sean Connery's Draco to act like a goofball.
Draco really is the heart of Dragonheart, pun intended. His CGI hasn't aged too well, though it's impressive work for 1996. (The legendary Industrial Light & Magic was involved, and the work innovated on Jurassic Park a few years earlier contributed to Dragonheart's visual endurance.) But coupled with Connery's sophisticated pipes, Draco is a breath of new life for movie dragons despite being more than 20 years old.
In a change from most Dungeons & Dragons campaigns, Draco isn't a mysterious, scary entity. He isn't the final boss, he's just a dragon, annoyed at humanity's insistence to hunt his kind down and resentful that he's the last. All he wants is to be left in peace, yet his budding friendship with an errant knight becomes its own reward.
It's through Draco and Bowen that Dragonheart is an unlikely buddy comedy. There could have been an entire movie on this concept alone, and indeed that was screenwriter's Patrick Read Johnson's original concept. "Dragonheart was an idea I had been kicking around for years," Johnson told IGN in a 2012 interview.
"I knew what the premise was about the last dragon and the last knight that finally meet up in a stalemate and make a deal. This was sort of the first scene that I thought of – the knight in the dragon's mouth with his sword against the roof his mouth. I knew they would come to the conclusion that they only way for them to continue to survive was to stage these mock battles all over the countryside and get paid in heaps of gold."
But in ways both good and bad, Dragonheart is more than Draco and Bowen. The film clumsily adds a class uprising story with Einon, while Kara's vengeance feels duct-taped onto the script. Queen Aislinn also seems to be a character with so much more importance that was chipped away and edited throughout subsequent drafts.
Unfortunately, there are skeletons associated with Dragonheart that must be reckoned with. For starters, the film was all Patrick Read Johnson's ideas, but typical Hollywood studio politics basically forced him out of his own movie. That the studio instead relied on Rob Cohen, who has been accused by his trans daughter of sexual assault, is terribly unfortunate. And then there's Sean Connery and his own history of abuse that tears out Draco's heart.
No movie made in Hollywood is totally clean, it's just weird how those involved with Dragonheart darken a carefree movie about dragons. Still, that Sean Connery is charming as a fire-breathing monster is a sight to behold, even if that sight is a little ugly.
Dragonheart is streaming now on Netflix until Friday, June 12.