Reviewed by
Colin Jacobson

Title: Dragonheart: Collector's Edition (1996)
Studio Line: Universal Studios - You will believe.

Long ago, when majestic fire-breathers soared through the skies, there lived a knight who would come face-to-face and heart-to-heart with the most remarkable creature that ever existed. Dennis Quaid stars with the voice of Sean Connery in this heroic adventure that blazes with fantasy, humor, and the most amazing special effects since Jurassic Park! This epic adventure will move and thrill the entire family.

Director: Bob Cohen
Cast: Dennis Quaid, David Thewlis, Dina Meyer, Pete Postlewaite, Julie Christie, voice of Sean Connery
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Visual Effects, 1997.
DVD: Widescreen 2.35:1/16x9; audio English DD 5.1, Spanish & French Dolby Surround; subtitles Spanish; closed-captioned; single sided - dual layered; 51 chapters; rated PG-13; 103 min.; $34.95; street date 3/31/98.
Supplements: Audio Commentary with the Director Rob Cohen; Original Documentary "The Making of Dragonheart"; Interviews with Cast & Crewmembers; Behind-The-Scenes Footage; Extensive Special Effects Coverage; Plus other exciting materials.
Purchase: DVD | DTS DVD | Novel - Charles Edward Pogue | Score soundtrack - Randy Edelman

Picture/Sound/Extras: A-/A-/A-

After the computer graphic innovations of 1993's Jurassic Park, it was only a matter of time before someone would attempt the next step on the CGI evolutionary scale: to create a fully computer-rendered actor. Although no one has yet involved a believable human, various other creatures have been fashioned through bits and bytes, starting with 1996's Dragonheart.

Yes, Dragonheart is the movie that made the world safe for Jar-Jar Binks. One of our main protagonists is a dragon named Draco, and though he possesses the voice of Sean Connery, most of the rest of him resides in a computer somewhere. Although early attempts at the production toyed with the use of puppets and animatronics, ultimately the filmmakers went for almost all-CGI; there's very little of Draco that existed in the physical universe.

Was it a successful experiment? Partially. Connery's vocal presence adds heft and power to the character that makes it easier for us to accept and believe the role; a lesser actor would have meant that it would be harder for us to buy into the suspension of disbelief.

However, Draco doesn't succeed completely just because of the appearance of the character. He possesses that tell-tale CGI "look" to him. The images integrate well with the natural backgrounds and human actors, and the motion appears smooth and realistic, but the dragon himself simply seems phony. It's mainly in the face, as it lacks the photorealistic appearance of a JP dinosaur; in the attempts to add dimension to it, the filmmakers made Draco's puss look excessively artificial.

Despite these drawbacks, I largely liked Dragonheart and I thought the story and action were compelling enough to allow me to overlook some of the animation flaws. The movie follows the tale of Bowen (Dennis Quaid), a knight "of the old order" who takes Prince Einon under his wing to train him how to be both a solid warrior and also a noble man. Unfortunately, he only succeeds on one count, but he remains oblivious to Einon's true character. When Einon is impaled through his heart, Bowen helps him receive a gift from Draco - part of his heart, which allows Einon to live anew.

Although Einon promised to uphold the high moral standards of both Bowen's brethren and the dragons, he's a nasty little cuss who completely ignores his commitments. This embitters Bowen, who vows to slay every dragon he meets, and pretty much does. The tale jumps ahead about a decade and we see a bedraggled Bowen he metes out a living going town to town and axing dragons, while Einon (played by David Thewlis as an adult) has developed into the vicious tyrant we all knew he would be. Eventually, Bowen learns the error of his ways and teams with Draco to fight the power.

It's all pretty standard sword and sorcery stuff, but the plot moves at a nice pace and director Rob Cohen keeps the action light but dramatic enough to feature some emotional heft at times. There's little question where the story will go, but it offers a good ride along the way.

Despite the failings of the effects, Connery's strong vocal performance makes Draco the most compelling character in the film. He's the one who shows the most life and verve, and we grow to like him immensely. Quaid is acceptable as Bowen, though he seems a bit out of his element as a knight. I didn't object to his American accent, though we have gotten used to British tones in this sort of role, but something about Quaid feels inappropriate for this kind of role; he has too much of that chummy ex-jock attitude for me to fully buy him as a noble knight. However, I generally liked him in the part, as his strengths (physical appearance and emotional range) helped endear the character to me.

As for Thewlis, I could never quite decide if he was great or terrible in the movie. On one hand, he has a menacing smirk that makes him quite believable as a bad guy; although he's hampered with a goofy haircut, I never questioned for a second the nasty heart of this villain. However, Thewlis tends to overplay the part and he enters serious ham territory at times. These overly broad aspects of his portrayal undermined it to a degree.

In the end, though, I liked Dragonheart. It won't stand as a classic by any means, but since I don't usually care for this sort of film, there must be something good about it for me to enjoy it as much as I did.

The DVD:

Dragonheart appears in an aspect ratio of approximately 2.35:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; the image has been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. The picture presented a few minor concerns but generally looked terrific.

Sharpness seemed wonderfully crisp and detailed. Nary a hint of softness or fuzziness could be seen, and this occurred without any obvious edge enhancement; though the opening credits appeared a little dicey - they showed a mildly hazy quality - the rest of the movie looked free of moiré effects or jagged edges, though I did witness moderate artifacts from the 16X9 downconversion on my 4X3 TV. Print flaws included some mild speckles and black grit at times, but I saw nothing more serious; there were no instances of scratches, hairs, tears or blotches, and the image seemed free from grain.

Dragonheart used a fairly natural palette and the colors appeared accurate and well-saturated. Reds came across especially well, from the fabrics in some clothes to the subtle tones of Dina Meyer's hair, but all hues were very attractive. Black levels seemed deep and rich and showed strong contrast, and with the exception of one early scene that suffered from the excessive heaviness connected with day for night photography, shadow detail was clear and appropriately thick. Ultimately, I thought Dragonheart offered a very satisfying image.

The film's Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack seemed equally strong. The soundfield favored some powerful directional effects. When Draco flies around the house, he flies around the house! Dragonheart makes exceptional use of the discrete capabilities as each of the five speakers often offers unique audio, and the sounds blend together fairly nicely as well.

The general atmosphere of the soundfield wasn't quite as well unified, however. The mix accentuated distinct aspects of the audio such as Draco's flapping wings or various sounds of battles, but the ambiance could seem slightly barren at times; some scenes provided minor bits and pieces of sound but not much to flesh out the whole picture. For example, listen to the scene in which Einon is attacked at his banquet table; the audio sticks closely to the center and it lacks the atmosphere that could have brought it to life. The terrific use of directional effects largely compensates for these minor drawbacks, but I still felt the mix wasn't as all-encompassing as it should have been.

Audio quality seemed very strong, with only a few small issues. Dialogue almost always appeared crisp and natural, with no concerns related to intelligibility. My only problem with any speech related to Draco's lines. Obviously Connery's dialogue had to be dubbed, and I felt it integrated awkwardly with the rest of the mix. Put simply, the tone of his words sounded different from that of the other actors, and this aspect made it harder to buy the illusion; it seemed very clear that Draco wasn't there with the rest of the cast because of the qualities displayed by his speech.

That quibble aside, the rest of the audio was excellent. Effects were very clear and realistic, and they packed a serious punch when necessary; from Draco's footsteps to flapping wings to fire breath, he's always sure to put a dent in your speakers, and the other effects also proved solid. Music seemed clean and smooth, with strong dynamic range; from crisp highs to deep lows, the score came across nicely. Overall, I was impressed by the soundtrack of Dragonheart, but I felt some small concerns earned it an "A-" grade.

This DVD release of Dragonheart adapts a $125 laserdisc release, apparently with all that package's components intact. First we find an audio commentary from director Rob Cohen. I thought this was a generally-compelling piece that covered the subject in a coherent and interesting manner. Cohen manages to discuss a wide variety of topics that relate to the film; he touches on effects, story, his own interest in the subject and many other production issues. He really manages to convey a lot of solid details about the making of the movie and he does so deftly and in an ingratiating manner. I especially liked all of the facts he related about the historical accuracy they strove to feature in the picture. Overall, I thought this was a very fine commentary that definitely added to my enjoyment of the movie.

Next up is a solid documentary called "The Making of Dragonheart". This 46-minute and 35-second program provides the usual relatively-complete overview of the movie we've come to expect from Universal's Collector's Editions. Most of the principals appear; we see interview segments from director Cohen - who definitely dominates the proceedings - plus actors Quaid, Dina Meyer, and David Thewlis plus a mix of members of the technical crew. The program also offers lots of great shots from the production itself, with plenty of interesting looks behind the scenes. I especially enjoyed the clips of an early animatronic Draco created by Jim Henson's studio plus a fun glimpse of the initial CGI attempts at Draco; the filmmakers adapted the T-rex from Jurassic Park for a funny-looking dragon. It's a very compelling and entertaining piece that should be of interest to any fan of the film.

A few other features appear on this DVD. Two outtakes follow the documentary. The first shows some additional interaction between Bowen and Brother Gilbert (Pete Postlethwaite) and it lasts for 90 seconds, while the second offers a minor confrontation between Bowen and Kara (Dina Meyer) and runs about 55 seconds. Neither scene provides much activity, but they're nice to have.

The "Dragonheart Archives" include a slew of stillframe materials. Through its 310 screens, we find lots of concept art, character designs, models, storyboards, production photos and posters. It's a nice collection of different elements that proves interesting and merits a look.

Other advertisements also appear on the DVD. We get the teaser for Dragonheart plus its full theatrical trailer; the latter can be heard in English or dubbed into Spanish, French or German. The disc provides five TV spots as well, which are available only in English (as is the teaser).

Lastly, we get brief but decent biographies for six actors (Quaid, Connery, Thewlis, Meyer, Postlethwaite, and Julie Christie) plus director Cohen. Some fine production notes also appear on the DVD, and additional text can be found within the package's booklet.

One note about the supplements: some of them are mildly hidden within various menus. The TV ads, the outtakes, and the "Archive" can be found only within the chapter listing for the "Making of." program. The trailers also appear in that area, but they can be accessed from the main "supplements" domain as well. Some of the features - such as the outtakes and the ads - will follow the documentary if you let it run past the credits.

Dragonheart moves deftly between action, comedy, and pathos, and it proves to be a fun and compelling film as a whole. I can't call it a classic, but it's well-executed as a whole and it seems quite entertaining. The DVD is simply great, as it provides terrific picture and sound plus a slew of fine extras. Fans of action fantasies such as this should be very pleased with the DVD of Dragonheart.

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