The year is 1981. A young man fresh off some space opera called Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, but before Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi had a little time for a new project. He wanted to make a movie about fighting dragons, but technology wasn’t on his side. CGI was still in its infancy. This is George Lucas we are talking about here, though – when has technology stood in his way? Love them or hate them, the Star Wars movies hold up in terms of technology, even by today’s standards. Undeterred, he set out to make Dragonslayer, setting ILM to work on what would be one of the most ambitious movies of that decade. Visual Effects Supervisor Dennis Muran and his team would succeed in a big way, and now 40 years later, Dragonslayer is brought to life once again with one of the best 4K restorations we’ve ever seen. Strap yourselves in folks, this is one heck of an upgrade!
If you are unfamiliar with this movie, the official synopsis goes a little something like this:
Set in sixth-century England, an ill-tempered, fire-breathing creature—ominously known as Vermithrax Pejorative—terrorizes its citizens until a young sorcerer’s apprentice named Galen (Peter MacNicol) is reluctantly tasked with confronting the beast. For Galen to succeed, it will take more than magic to defeat the dragon.
Normally I’d say that sort of story is not going to win any awards, but it actually did manage to get nominated – several times. It was nominated for a Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation. It was also nominated for a Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film, Best Supporting Actor, Best Costumes, and Best Special Effects. Topping the award list, it was even nominated for an Oscar for Best Visual Effects and Best Original Music Score. While it didn’t win any of those awards, it arguably should have picked up a few of these given the incredible work ILM and others put in on this venture.
On display is one of the cleanest rebuilds of a movie we’ve seen to date. Upgraded to 4K Ultra HD, and now with HDR-10 and Dolby Vision, and while retaining the movie’s original 2:39:1 aspect ratio, this movie is absolutely magnificent. The final sequences of the movie are purposely dark, with large flashes of fire and light. The HDR-10 really shines in these sequences, while keeping the composite special effects looking their absolute best. It’s very easy to overcorrect these sorts of technical moments, as we saw with re-releases like The Matrix films, unfortunately revealing wires, obvious green screens, and other technical wizardry. Here it’s preserved perfectly, looking even better than it did in the theater, undoubtedly. The few scenes where the image is soft or marred by a slight blurriness are very few and far between, often being little more than fleeting establishing shots. It’s a monumental task to remaster a film that is 40 years old, and it requires a great deal of patience and a practiced hand. If you doubt their work, simply watch the special features to see just how much grain they pulled out of this film and you’ll be a believer. Time and time again we see that Paramount has both, and we are the beneficiaries.
The audio in Dragonslayer has also gotten the once-over. Now with Dolby Atmos sound, the film is magnificent on even moderate hardware. The center channel is crisp and clear, the music is well balanced, and the roar of the dragon rattles the windows appropriately. Director Matthew Robbins had a hand in the restoration, and when he imagined how this movie would look and sound back in 1981, I’m going to guess this is what was in his head. He provided his expertise, as well as his blessing to both the audio and video remaster, so I’m sure he is happy to see it with a new lease on life.
While I wouldn’t call this a star-studded cast, there are some names you might recognize. The Wizard Ulrich is played, albeit briefly, by Ralph Richardson who starred in some incredible films from 1933 to 2011, including Time Bandits, Watership Down, Doctor Zhivago, and The Fallen Idol, in addition to Dragonslayer, of course. The man has four movies with a perfect rating under his belt, so it’s certainly worth the mention. A young Ian McDiarmid (Yes, Emperor Palpatine amongst a few other notable roles) has a small part in this adventure. Sydney Bromley ends up playing…well, precisely the same character (Engywook) he did in The Neverending Story, and Albert Salmi (another storied actor from 1958 to 1989) provides some familiar faces. Then there’s our story protagonist, Peter MacNicol.
Peter MacNicol is precisely the face that comes to mind when you say “Who can we get to be the awkward sidekick?” in the casting office. George Lucas has a penchant for finding completely unknown talent and thrusting them in front of the camera, and this film was MacNicol’s first appearance on film. Bafflingly, it’s easily his second best performance of his career, in my opinion — his first being Janosz Poha in Ghostbusters II. Here he plays a fledgling sorcerer’s apprentice trying to figure out how to fill the shoes of a master who clearly relied on books more than instruction to impart his knowledge. MacNicol is, for lack of a better comparison, a dorkier Luke Skywalker. Part Jedi, part doubter, and all too confident at the wrong times, he goes through a bit of a reverse hero’s journey, inheriting power he hasn’t earned, flubs the landing, and has to figure out how to atone for his hubris. We’ve seen this story quite a few times, but this is certainly one of the first mainstream adaptations of it.
Even the dragon gets a bit of a long shadow. The name Vermithrax has lived on well beyond the likes of Dragonslayer. In fact, the name gets reused in the show Game of Thrones. The absolutely massive dragon skull that decorates the Red Keep in King’s Landing in the series is referred to as Vermithrax by the handmaiden Doreah in the show, though there’s no mention of that name anywhere in the books. Pre-made model kits (Amazon), resin 3D printable STLs (CGTrader), shirts, phone cases, stickers (RedBubble), and more examples exist of just how much of a fanbase this massive monster that ILM brought to life has continued to have, now four decades later.
One of the reasons this film works is that the team focused on making the dragon dangerous and believable, but like the movie Alien, doesn’t spend a great deal of camera time on it before its grand reveal. Using 16 massive animatronic puppets and mechanical monsters, as well as go motion technologies used in movies like Robocop’s ED-209 sequences, Phil Tippett and his team brought the dragon Vermithrax Pejorative to life. Guided by Dave Bunnett’s incredible artwork as guidance, and Dennis Muren, the ILM team did incredible work that took the works of greats like Ray Harryhausen and took it to the next level. At scale, Danny Lee brought to life the incredibly large full-scale animatronics, which were over 20 feet in length and incredibly dangerous, by all accounts. Given that this was a time before computer generated special effects, it all had to be done by hand. Their work is absolutely magnificent and holds up brilliantly in the film. Tippett would go on to design the dragon for Dragonheart as well, but truth be told – if you’ve got a favorite movie, this man likely has done the effects work for it.
If a look behind the scenes is your goal, you’ll be happy to know that the 4K BluRay release has a few goodies the previous releases didn’t have. First is a new commentary track by Director Matthew Robbins and, surprisingly, Guillermo del Toro! In it, the duo comment on the making of the film, challenges, and how Guillermo del Toro was inspired by the film. Next are five shorts called Slayer of All Dragons where the team at ILM showcase how they came up with the various elements of the movie, including the locales and even Vermithrax himself. If you want to see four alternate takes on the film with some different actors, then you’ll enjoy the last new item in the list – screen tests with various actors who were passed on for various roles in the film. Also included is the original theatrical trailer, which is great for a comparison of just how far this movie has come, visually speaking. It’s phenomenal when you watch them back to back, especially given the amount of time that has passed.
Ron Burke is the Editor in Chief for Gaming Trend. Currently living in Fort Worth, Texas, Ron is an old-school gamer who enjoys CRPGs, action/adventure, platformers, music games, and has recently gotten into tabletop gaming.
Ron is also a fourth degree black belt, with a Master's rank in Matsumura Seito Shōrin-ryū, Moo Duk Kwan Tang Soo Do, Universal Tang Soo Do Alliance, and International Tang Soo Do Federation. He also holds ranks in several other styles in his search to be a well-rounded fighter.
Ron has been married to Gaming Trend Editor, Laura Burke, for 27 years. They have three dogs - Pazuzu (Irish Terrier), Atë, and Calliope (both Australian Kelpie/Pit Bull mixes).
With the help of real-world wizards like Phil Tippett and his team, and guided by George Lucas and Director Matthew Robbins, Dragonslayer is pure fantasy at its most family friendly. This 4K Remaster, though? That’s true magic that’s guaranteed to bewilder and amaze.