Hundreds of years after the era of Camelot, a valiant knight named Bowen (Dennis Quaid) acts as mentor to a petulant, power-hungry prince named Einon.
When Einon is mortally wounded in battle, Bowen and the Prince’s mother (Julie Christie) turn to an unorthodox method of saving him: a talking dragon is summoned, who gives Einon half his heart to save his life.
Years later, a fully grown Einon (David Thewlis) abuses his subjects and makes slaves of those in his kingdom. Bowen searches for the dragon that, in his opinion, “poisoned” his young pupil. When Bowen encounters Draco, “the last dragon” (Sean Connery), the two initially duke it out, until they make a truce.
Better still? They work as a con artist team, where Draco terrorizes a town and Bowen pretends to be the “dragon slayer” that can rid the terrified townsfolk of their fire breathing problem.
Rob Cohen’s “Dragonheart” (1996) was a big deal in its day, as the years-in-production fantasy touted envelope-pushing CGI “realism” and special effects wizardry from the miracle makers at Industrial Light and Magic. In fact, the film’s teaser movie poster declared (in an obvious homage to “Superman- The Movie”) “You Will Believe.”
Twenty-five years later, the film’s standing hasn’t changed: the visual effects are, indeed, wondrous, while the film itself is a shaggy-dog story that frequently hits and misses.
Cohen’s mismanaged fantasy/epic sports an ensemble that has been miscast from top to bottom. Quaid is such a seasoned professional, even at this stage of his career, that he gives the role of Bowen his all, but he’s still all wrong for it.
This isn’t akin to Kevin Costner’s misplacement as lead in “Robin Hood – Prince of Thieves” but Quaid can’t give this the center it needs. Cohen had Jason Scott Lee to carry his rousing but spotty “Dragon- The Bruce Story” (1993) but doesn’t fare as well here with Quaid, in a performance similar to the working-hard-but-not-really-working-out turn Richard Gere gave “First Knight” (1995) the prior summer.
Thewlis, playing the villain, is unsettling for all the wrong reasons; this isn’t the kind of heavy you love to hate, but simply loath because the actor is unpleasant here and not compelling enough to maintain our complete interest. Dina Meyer is distractingly contemporary and Christie is far too good to be filling the “good queen” role.
Pete Postlethwaite, the gifted character actor and breakout Oscar nominee from “In the Name of the Father” (1993), is unfortunately cast in the role of a traveling poet who recites as Bowen battles; it’s a dumb character that Postlethwaite, for all the gravity he brings, can’t make endearing.
Connery is wonderful, though his timeless voice prevents Draco from being anything other than Sean Connery the Dragon. It’s somewhat similar to Robin Williams’ contribution to “Aladdin,” where the star powered vocals (and the character overall) are so commanding, they steal the movie.
The scenes that work best here, by far, are the quiet give and takes between Dracon and Bowen. Some 25-years later, the CGI is still incredible. I never questioned the reality of Draco and his interaction with the live action performers, which is always stunning.
It’s a stretch to suggest that Bowen doesn’t immediately recognize Draco’s voice from years ago – has there ever been a talking dragon (outside of “Puff the Magic Dragon”) with a more easily identifiable voice? After all, how many giant, flying, fire-breathing and Scottish-accented dragons are there in this kingdom?
The climax doesn’t really work, even as the closing image is a nice visual that, nevertheless, can’t provide the full-circle emotional climax the film thinks it has.
Cohen’s ability to keep a focused narrative and tone allude him here, as this is all over the place in terms of settling on what kind of film it wants to be. When its Draco and Bowen working together, doing a village-to-village con job, its broadly funny (the site of Draco grabbing an arrow in mid-air and faking an impalement is hilarious). Had the whole movie settled on this angle, “Dragonheart” could have been something special.
The PG-13 rating is appropriate, as well as an indicator that something is off. Much of this feels like a children’s film (Postelthwaite’s performance certainly feels tailor made for one) but it’s awfully violent.
In addition to all the impalements, there’s a scene between Meyer and Thewlis that hints of sexual danger, a creepy detour this didn’t need. Because no one decided if this should be a gritty, bloodstained adventure film (like “Dragonslayer”) or a child-friendly yuk-fest with slapstick comedy (like “Pete’s Dragon”), Cohen tries settling for both approaches.
There are scenes that soar but much of this sloppy and at war with itself.
As is, it’s the fully realized achievement of creating a believable dragon that is the film’s sole, consistent triumph. Otherwise, this is enjoyable in fits and starts but Draco enlivens an otherwise mediocre enterprise.
You can lump the amazing creation of Draco along with other ILM milestones like the “Jurassic Park” dinos, which still look persuasive and lifelike today. The scenes of Bowen marching up a hill while Draco flies alongside him are still persuasive, with both Connery and Quaid creating the illusion of onscreen chemistry.
While enjoyable on some levels and worthy as a footnote in the history of cinema special effects, this is, nevertheless, not a successful film at the human level. Yet, it has a following and wasn’t a total box office wash (though it wasn’t a hit, either).
Straight to video sequels and frequent re-airings on basic cable keep “Dragonheart” in the public consciousness, though even “The Beastmaster” has a far louder fanbase. Taken at face-value, there is entertainment value and f/x showmanship to spare, but this is more of an almost-was than a genuine classic.