Since I’ve been watching the Rings of Power series, I was in the mood for a fantasy movie last weekend, and I didn’t have time to watch any of the Lord of the Rings or Hobbit films since most of those run about three hours. I found a fantasy film on Amazon called Dawn of the Dragonslayer that worked pretty well and was less than two hours.
I’d put this in a similar category to the kind of fantasy movie they used to show on Saturday nights on the Sci Fi Channel (back when it was the Sci Fi Channel instead of SyFy) that I called Fantasy Cheese, only it was much better executed. It was filmed on location in Ireland and they had a good director of photography, so it looked utterly gorgeous, and there was a good score to go with all the lovely imagery. They had an actual castle to use as a location, so the setting looked real. The acting was mostly strong (it seems to have been a cast of mostly Irish actors who do a lot of theater work). The script was so-so. It may just be that I’ve spent too much time studying story structure, so it’s hard to surprise me, but I felt like it was very by-the-numbers and a bit too predictable. On the other hand, it was the kind of predictable that’s satisfying — a key factor in good Fantasy Cheese. You know what’s going to happen, but it’s what you want to happen.
The story was about a farmboy whose father was killed by a dragon. It was his father’s wish that he leave the farm and go to be a bondsman to a nobleman who owed the father something, with a sealed message the farmboy was to bring the nobleman. The idea is that the nobleman will train the farmboy to be a knight, and he’ll be able to move up in the world. Except the nobleman is down on his luck and out of favor with the king, so although the sealed message definitely gets a reaction, he only takes on the farmboy as a farmhand, not to train him to be a knight. But the nobleman has a beautiful, scholarly daughter (of course), and she has a rare book on how a knight should be trained and an even rarer book on how to be a paladin who can battle dragons and survive, so she trains him in secret — when comes in handy when the dragon returns.
The low budget mostly showed in the lack of cast and in the bad special effects, and I think those things affected the story. It’s a really small cast, and there are no extras, which made it feel like a really empty world. The farmboy walks across the land from his farm to the nobleman’s castle without encountering a single person that we see until he reaches the castle, and there are several other long journeys (some requiring camping overnight en route) in which the characters never see another person or even a sign of civilization, and this is not a plot point. We never learn that the dragon has wiped out most of the people, or anything like that. Aside from a few farmhands, there are no servants at the castle. Maybe that’s because the lord is down on his luck, but a wealthy elderly noblewoman who’s a relative comes to visit, and she has no servants with her, not even a lady’s maid. A wealthy and powerful young nobleman with eyes for the daughter comes to visit, and he doesn’t have any servants with him. I guess since there are no people, they were able to safely travel without guards. I think the script could have used this to add a bit of worldbuilding, but since the lack of people wasn’t acknowledged, it just made the world feel empty and artificial.
And the CGI dragon itself wasn’t too bad, but it wasn’t integrated well into the “real” footage, so it looked like one of those bad Photoshop jobs where they just stick something into a picture and it’s obviously pasted in. That didn’t bother me quite as much as the heroine having Jennifer Anniston hair with face-framing layers and a heavy-handed modern makeup job. If you’d told me there was a deleted scene saying she was a time traveler who’d fallen through a portal from 2010, I’d have believed it.
But aside from those quibbles, it was an entertaining and lovely to look at fantasy movie with a running time of under two hours, which is rare.
Really, fantasy movies seem to be oddly rare now. The 80s were a heyday of fantasy films, with things like Dragonslayer, Ladyhawke, Legend, Labarynth, The Princess Bride, and Willow, along with more sword-and-sorcery type stuff like the Conan movies, Krull, and The Beastmaster. And while some of them were based on books, there were several that were original stories.
But in spite of the success of the Lord of the Rings movies, Hollywood didn’t seem to capitalize on it with more fantasy stuff. There were the Hobbit films, which were the same universe and filmmaker, and the Narnia movies, but otherwise I can’t think of many fantasy films other than a few of the fairytale-based movies and the Disney live-action remakes. They seem to have headed for TV instead, with A Game of Thrones and the spinoff, Wheel of Time, and Rings of Power. There are a few other things that kind of fall into the fantasy category, like the Pirates movies and some of the Marvel movies, but there’s not a lot of what I call “traditional” fantasy, with a quasi-medieval setting, castles, wizards, etc. And all the more recent fantasy I can think of is based on books or some other pre-existing property. Not that I have any problem with turning fantasy books into movies or TV series, but it does make you wonder where the original stories are. Are studios so risk-averse that they only fund things based on something that’s already got a fanbase, or are writers not coming up with their own fantasy stories? I scrolled through the entire fantasy category on Amazon last night, and there’s very little of what I would consider “fantasy.” Most of it is more horror or science fiction.
I need more horses, castles, knights, wizards, dragons, etc.
That filmmaker who did Dawn of the Dragonslayer (who also did another good Fantasy Cheese film I watched last year, The Crown and the Dragon, which I think is set in the same universe as this film) should maybe try writing a script that actually uses the practical limitations she’s dealing with and that doesn’t require a dragon. Write about a witch or wizard in a lonely place, doing magic that requires minor CGI to show, and no CGI creatures, and let the director of photography have fun with the scenery.