Dragon DVD Review
Written by Eric "The Hitman" Strauss
DVD released by The Asylum
Written and directed by Leigh Scott
2006, Region 1, 90 minutes, Not rated
DVD released on December 12th, 2006
Amelia Jackson-Gray as Princess Alora Vanir
Matt Wolf as Sir Cador Bane
Jon-Paul Gates as Lord Artemir
Jeff Denton as Gareth Morholt
Eliza Swenson as Freyja
Many ages ago, some writers at TSR play-tested their latest Dungeons & Dragons creations, and had so much fun, they wrote a trio of novels based on how things went for their characters.
A few hundred books later, the Dragonlance world is a staple of fantasy gaming.
Watching the Asylum's latest mainstream takeoff, Dragon, I found myself thinking of the Saturday afternoons I spend playing D&D with my friends.
You don't often see the words "fantasy epic" and "low budget" together, but that gets to the heart of Dragon.
Dragon is a movie that relies on the kind of familiar fantasy stories that are the key to any good weekend D&D game. There are swords, verbal jousting, a princess to save, a monstrous beastie to slay and character names and lines straight from the "this is what fantasy ought to sound like" playbook.
Think of it this way: If Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy is a set of modules for epic-level characters on the convention circuit, Dragon is more like a first- or second-level game on a sunny summer day.
The downside is, Dragon is something of a niche film — a non-horror film from a studio known for low-budget horror — and it's caught between a rock and a hard place. It lacks the expensive, expansive imagery movies fans have come to expect in a post-LOTR world, but it also lacks the hardcore fantasy chops to appeal to die-hard swords-and-sorcery fans.
So what sort of target audience should writer/director Leigh Scott and his cast hope for?
Honestly? D&Ders with a good-natured willingness to suspend disbelief and a soft spot for underdog films.
Because if you take Dragon at face value — not a ripoff of Eragon, which it beat to the screen by three days, and certainly not The Return of the King — much like a good pickup game of D&D, it's a fun way to spend an afternoon.
Scott's script walks a tightrope between the familiar and the fantasy cliché.
All of the archetypes are there: The dour soldier, the eager young knight, the mouthy rogue, the princess who must save her kingdom.
The dialogue is stilted in that way fantasy lines should sound — especially when spoken by British actors with British accents.
The names are straight out of the RPG generator: "Alora Vanir," "Cador Bane," "Gareth Morholt" all have that Camelot-meets-cartoon ring that so many D&D players cheerfully choose with tongue ever-so-slightly in cheek.
And the two-dollar medieval words sound impressive; even if terms like "necromancer" and "liege" are completely misused, they sound right in the moment.
It only helps the film that Scott's mostly-British actors hold up their end of the deal, playing it straight and, for the most part, competently. Amelia Jackson-Gray, one of the few highlights of Snakes on a Train, isn't nearly the standout in a better cast here, but she gives the film a capable center as the princess heroine.
This time, it's Matt Wolf who gets the A-grade, hitting all the right emotional notes as the eager young knight who would fight and die for the woman he loves.
Asylum regular Jeff Denton (King of the Lost World, Frankenstein Reborn) has some fun with his smart-aleck soldier of fortune, and fellow inmate Eliza Swenson (Beast of Bray Road, Bram Stoker's Dracula's Curse) was a major force in the film, getting co-story and composing credits and playing a fearsome sorceress with style.
Among the rest of the cast, Rachel Haines gives the best show, in the Valeria, Queen of Thieves, role. Jessica Bork is underused as an elvish archer, but fares well in her few signature moments.
If Jon-Paul Gates doesn't quite master the gravity of the jaded soldier-turned-party leader, and Jason DeParis has a little too much Keanu-does-Shakespeare in his mannerisms, both are more than acceptable. So saying theirs are the iffiest performances in the bunch means it was a pretty darn solid turn all around.
One critical element of any low-budget film that relies heavily on computer graphics — you didn't think they could afford a real dragon, did you? — is whether or not that CGI gets the job done.
While the titular monster isn't exactly the pinnacle of believability, and there are some definite problems with continuity of scale, it's more obvious than bad. And Scott and his editor are smart enough to hide the CGI's flaws — and other inherent problems, like actors swinging swords at thin air — as best they can, with quick cuts and other tricks.
In fact, Scott manages to give a lot of the film's crucial scenes a very polished look, with sharply-edited combat a la Gladiator — which looks great — and the kind of washed-out bluish hues found in so many recent mainstream films.
That emphasis on the "money shots" of spells and fights is another way Scott harks back to the D&D feel. It's a small group of characters, with their own personalities — not Jackson's waves of faceless extras — bickering and brawling their way through a simple quest.
Anyone who's ever imagined their D&D days brought to life will be able to relate, to both the idea and the enthusiasm. I did.
Video and Audio:
The video, dubbed "Cinemascope presentation," is a capable anamorphic 2.35:1 image. There is a general softness to the picture, and the occasional bit of digital noise around the edges, but for the most part the video quality is pretty good for a low-budget film, and made better by the anamorphic enhancement.
The 5.1 surround audio is much weaker than the video, however. The surrounds are used well, but loud dialogue has an obvious tinny edge and volume levels are a bit erratic.
A 2.0 Dolby stereo track is also available.
Director Leigh Scott does a solo audio commentary, after lamenting that a commentary with star Eliza Swenson was inadvertently erased. It's nothing to write home about, offering plenty of information but suffering from many gaps (made worse by the way the audio is obviously shut down when he's not speaking). Scott admits he's taken heat for past commentaries with too many participants, but he struggles to fill the time, and in fact signs off some six minutes shy of the film's end. It's too bad the first commentary was lost; it might have shown the Asylum a happy medium between the two extremes.
"In the Belly of the Beast" is a typical 17-minute making-of featurette that manages to distinguish itself by the good-natured humor of the participants.
A blooper reel — highlighting the perils of martial-weapon combat and period costuming — a pair of short deleted scenes and the Dragon trailer round out the film's extras.
The Asylum has also included trailers for Night of the Dead, 9/11 Commission Report, Halloween Night and Freak Show.
It would be easy to deride Dragon for what it's not. It's not a sweeping, mainstream film like LOTR or Troy or their ilk. But any fantasy fan who's played D&D or Magic: The Gathering in the spirit they're meant to be played will be able to relate to the characters and quest, and maybe even see a bit of him- or herself on screen.
Good fantasy films of any budget are few and far between, and according to the box cover, Dragon is merely the first part of a trilogy. Frankly, I'm looking forward to the sequels — if those can capture the same movie magic, this little trilogy might, like Wolf's young knight, make a name for itself.
(Weapons of Choice: Mitsubishi 1080 series 42" TV, Sony DVP-CX995V DVD player, Bose Lifestyle 25 Series II speakers and, in certain situations, Panasonic 27" TV, Panasonic A110 DVD player and Bose TriPort headphones.)
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