'Dragonslayer' Breathes Fire Again With Excellent 4K Release (Review)

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Dragonslayer comes from an era when handmade special effects brought realistic dragons to the screen. But thanks to Paramount's surprising and stunning new 4K UltraHD release, Matthew Robbins' cult classic is alive once again. Newcomers will marvel at the early work of industrial light and magic legends, mixed with the rich and layered storytelling, while longtime fans will be pleased to know that Guillermo del Toro's championing of the movie resulted in one of Paramount's best catalog efforts.

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Dragonslayer's story bares several similarities to the first Star Wars film. But Star Wars itself is similar to the countless hero's journey stories that preceded it. Peter MacNichol stars as Galen Bradwarden, a young sorcerer apprentice to the old wizard Ulrich of Gragganmore (Ralph Richardson). After Ulrich is killed, Galen takes it upon himself to save Urland from the 400-year-old dragon named Vermithrax Pejorative. Caitlin Clarke co-stars as Valerian, who asked Ulrich to help her people. Valerian insists on going with Galen on his journey, which is made more troublesome by Urland guards who don't want Vermithrax killed because it would upset the status quo.

(Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Upon its original 1981 theatrical release, Dragonslayer was mostly ignored. At the time, Raiders of the Lost Ark was dominating the box office. Thanks to home video, the movie has now become a cult classic. Robbins and Hal Barwood's script is overflowing with ideas that make it far more interesting than you'd expect. There are several layers here ready to be unpacked. The Urland king is "the man" of this story, publicly telling his people that the dragon needs to be killed, but enjoying the bribes he receives from the rich so their daughters aren't sacrificed. The dragon is the last breath of wonder and imagination, which must be snuffed out so modern life can exist.

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The production team went above and beyond to make the world of Dragonslayer look like audiences could live there. The sets by Elliot Scott are immaculately designed, while Derek Vanlint's moody cinematography captures the wonder Robbins wanted. Alex North's sweeping score mixed with Ralph Richardson's performance bring serious weight to the production. Then there is the incredible Oscar-nominated work by ILM legends such as Phil Tippet and Dennis Mueren, who bring Vermithrax to life. No disrespect to the CGI artists of today, but you simply can't make anything look as realistic as a physical model. They took everything they learned on Star Wars and brought it to a fantasy world.

Of course, there is a reason why Dragonslayer didn't connect with audiences as much as other '80s fantasy films have. While the acting is uniformly good, MacNicol simply doesn't have the same charm as Mark Hamill or other contemporaries. He's a good actor, but as we've seen lately, he excels in character roles that have a mean streak. (Just look at his performance on VEEP.) The dialogue also can come off a bit stuffy and overly serious. Maybe there's a reason why George Lucas likes including cute characters in his movies, after all.

(Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Thanks in part to Del Toro's championing of the movie, Dragonslayer receives a really incredible special edition from Paramount. The 4K transfer is fantastic and really captures how dark this movie is supposed to look. Paramount even commissioned a new hour-long documentary on the making of Dragonslayer, complete with interviews with Robbins, Mueren, and Tippet. It's an absolute joy to hear them talk about creating the dragon and brings back so many memories of combing through old DVD special features. Del Toro even joined Robbins for a new commentary track, which sounds more like a gleeful fan interviewing his idol. Paramount also dug up screen tests featuring MacNicol and Clarke.

Dragonslayer is a prime example of the best 1980s Hollywood could offer. Robbins had access to the best talents in every department, all working together to bring this fantasy story to life. Other dragon movies have come and gone, but Dragonslayer stands out thanks to ILM's work and its astounding production design. Dragonslayer and the bonus features accompanying it here show how fun movies can be, both for the audience and those making them.

Watch 'Dragonslayer' on Paramount+

(Photo: Paramount+)

You can watch Dragonslayer via the Paramount+ streaming service app. With a $10 monthly plan, you can watch the extensive Paramount movie collection and so much more. Best of all, Paramount+ is offering a free seven-day trial right now.

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