Dragonslayer soars onto Blu-ray and 4K disc
By Jim Bray
Note: this review has been updated (April 27, 2023) to reflect receiving the 4K version)
Paramount Studios has finally released the epic fantasy Dragonslayer on high definition disc and it's a very nice transfer, and you even get some pretty substantial extras in the Blu-ray box.
Dragonslayer is, as I noted in my original review of the DVD about 20 years ago, one of the best fantasy films I've seen – perhaps not counting Peter Jackson's epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. It's a classic man vs. monster story featuring a great screenplay that tells the tale intelligently and with humour. It also features top notch performances and terrific special effects (for the pre-CG era) that were nominated for an Academy Award when the film came out.
It lost to Raiders of the Lost Ark, which was a shame. As much as I love Raiders, the effects in Dragonslayer are better and, thanks to the use of Go-Motion animation, more innovative. Still, I doubt the good folks at Industrial Light and Magic really cared, since they did both movies…
However one slices it, Dragonslayer is a great film and it's about time it got the treatment it deserves in this high-def era.
Dragonslayer tells the tale of Galen (Peter MacNicol), a Sorcerer's apprentice being mentored by the great-but-very old wizard Ulrich (Ralph Richardson, whose performance features a lovely blend of fatigue and majesty). At the opening, Galen watches his teacher submit to a test of his magical abilities and, afterward, takes it upon himself to help rid a distant kingdom of and old and tired dragon, kind of the fabulous beast version of Ulrich himself.
The King of the land, Casiodorus Rex (Peter Eyre), has made a horrible deal with the dragon: sacrifice virgins to it twice a year and the dragon leaves the land alone. Oddly enough, these sacrifices happen on the spring and autumn equinoxes, and I just happened to watch this new Blu-ray on the spring version, which made it kind of cool.
Anyway, the King and his regime hold lotteries to decide who's going to be eaten alive – for the greater good – by a huge, leathery beast.
As it turns out, these lotteries somehow manage to not include the daughters of the rich and powerful – in a theme where art most definitely imitates life. Right, Hunter?
Galen's task is made even more problematic because the King's "enforcer" (John Hallam), is a man who'll stop at nothing in the pursuit of his duties to king and country – especially the country, which lives in constant fear of the dragon's anger being unleashed were any attempts on its life to be unsuccessful. As Ulrich says (I paraphrase) the King has made a bargain with a monster. Casiodorus hopes that, since the dragon is old and feeble (for a dragon, anyway), it'll die soon and the lottery/bargain that has kept his kingdom prosperous will no longer be necessary. He's dead wrong – or at least wrong – of course, but we don't find that out for a while.
The terrific script blends straightforward epic fantasy with subplots that revolve around the lessening influence of magic in the world and the growing power of Christianity (as the age of sorcerers ends, the age of religion begins, and that's pretty well where this movie is set). It also does a beautiful job of handling the politics of the kingdom and the budding romance between Galen and the newly-liberated woman Valerian. The result is an extremely entertaining whole that's greater than the sum of its many great parts.
Dragonslayer is populated by many three-dimensional characters (even the bad guys have good reasons for what they do, while some of the supporting characters display surprising strengths when pressed). And take a look for Ian McDiarmid - Star Wars Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine - in a small but very important supporting role.
Then there's the dragon - created, before computer generated imagery, by a combination of full-size props and miniature models and puppets brought to life by ILM. Their "Go -Motion" adaptation of classic "Stop-Motion" animation (made famous over the decades by the late great Ray Harryhausen, Willis O'Brien and others) means that this dragon, Vermithrax Pejoritive, is a fearsome creature, clumsy on the ground but wonderfully graceful while in flight. And, boy, does he (or is Vermithrax a he?) pack a wallop!
The effects may look a little dated today, thanks to us being currently in a golden age of computerized special effects, but only a little – and the high resolution of the Blu-ray medium (alas, Paramount didn't send us the 4K disc and I'd have really loved to see it!) does let a few matte lines show through, but they aren't nearly enough to spoil the fun or destroy the sense of wonder. And any flaws are not as noticeable here in high-def than they were on the old DVD version. So that's good!
While Dragonslayer is a serious fantasy, it never allows itself to take itself too seriously. For example, when Galen "magically" appears in a puff of smoke, an exasperated nobleman pleads "Please, no more smoke!" and when Ulrich returns near the end of the quest, his first question to Galen is whether or not he brought something to eat - not "How's the dragon?".
As I said, it's a wonderful movie, one of the best of the genre, and it's just as entertaining today as it was then.
The Blu-ray is quite straightforward, and it looks and sounds really good. While I couldn't take advantage of HDR thanks to the Blu-ray being the only version Paramount sent, colours still manage to look terrific, as does the film-like depth of the image (thanks to excellent black levels). There's definitely some grain, and some shots look better than others, but overall this is the best video version of Dragonslayer that I've seen – which of course it should be!
This beautiful, epic look is great not only for the story, but also because of the beautiful locations at which this film was shot (including Wales, The Isle of Skye and Scotland). Heck, seeing the locations they used as backdrops is worth the price of admission on its own!
Audio is Dolby Atmos surround, which of course translates to Dolby TrueHD 7.1 for most home theatres. My review of the Dragonslayer DVD mentioned that its sound was merely okay, but the remastering for the Blu-ray/4K disc has brought it into the modern era beautifully. There's plenty of surround, all channels get good use and the overall fidelity is first rate – easily the best version I've heard.
Paramount says you get more than an hour of extras, and that doesn't include the new commentary track (accessed via the setup menu's audio choices) with director Matthew Robbins and more recent director Guillermo del Toro.
The Slayer of All Dragons is a great new feature that brings together director Robbins, and ILM mavens Phil Tippet (who went on to the CGI world, helping to create such nifty creatures as the full-sized dinosaurs in Jurassic Park) and Dennis Muren. It's pretty cool for special effects nerds, as well as being one of the better such documentaries that I've seen. It covers pretty well the gamut of the production, from concept through shooting and the post production including the excellent work of ILM. You'll learn about Go-Motion, and how it was an enhancement of Stop-Motion (there's even a brief look at the time the great Ray Harryhausen was invited on set), as well as how they pulled off the rest of the movie magic that's so prevalent in Dragonslayer. I'm really glad I had a chance to see it.
There are also screen tests and the original trailer.
Update, April 27, 2023
Now, Paramount has sent me the 4K disc version that was what I really wanted to see, and now that I've seen it I have to comment.
Or perhaps "drool" would be a better word.
Apparently sourced from a new restoration, the Blu-ray "Blu" me away, but this 4K version ups that ante in an obvious and substantial way. Not only does it give an image that looks extremely film like – detailed, with fine grain and fantastic colours and black levels, but it even excels in the many dark scenes that happen in this story.
It's simply gorgeous! Take a look at fine details, and revel in the beautiful locations and settings. I loved Dragaonslayer back in 1981 when it came out, then fell in love again with the spectacular Blu-ray. I guess third time's the charm, because the 4K version is definitely the way to go – easily!
Audio has been upgraded to Dolby Atmos, which my 5.1 home theatre won't play as Atmos, but as usual it "downconverts" to Dolby TrueHD and it's bloody spectacular as well. The surround is excellent, the fidelity is first rate, dialogue always comes through clearly – and wait till you hear the growls and roars of Vermithrax Pejorative himself/herself/itself!
There's also about the same extras that come with the Blu-ray vsion - about an hour of documentary stuff that, if you're a fan of the movie – or even of this type of movie – i's a must see.
There's no Blu-ray in the 4K disc box, so if you haven't upgraded your system to 4K yet, better stick with the Blu-ray for now (you won't regret it anyway), but if you have the equipment, the 4K disc is definitely the way to go.
Copyright 2023 Jim Bray