Paramount and Disney very briefly partnered to produce and distribute two films that were designed to expand Disney’s audience outside of their usual fanbase. One of those films was Matthew Robbins’ 1981 fantasy epic Dragonslayer, a lukewarm fantasy adventure that boasts some of the greatest practical effects ever committed to celluloid. This cult favorite makes the jump from DVD straight to 4K UHD with an absolutely stellar 2160p presentation aided by Dolby Vision HDR that respects the practical effects-heavy source. Add an hour-long making-of doc and a new Dolby Atmos soundtrack to get a Highly Recommended release for all dragons and slayers.
Okay, time for a little bit of history about Matthew Robbins’ Dragonslayer. Robbins took a great deal of inspiration from The Sorcerer’s Apprentice sequence in Disney’s Fantasia when researching the story for Dragonslayer, but that’s where the similarities end. Where Disney was known for bright and colorful animated epics, Robbins wanted to give the film more realism. Thus, the story takes place after the end of Roman rule in Britain, prior to the arrival of Christianity. Magic is just part of human existence in Dragonslayer, though the usual fantasy costumes and production design are switched out for something much weirder and interesting to tackle: an entire village filled with people in service to great superstitions that govern their ways of life.
Highfalutin descriptions of artistic intent aside, Dragonslayer is cited as one of Guillermo Del Toro’s favorite fantasy films, and rightfully so. It’s exactly the fantasy epic that studios wanted to produce in mass quantities, but this effort actually has the fictional world colored in well enough to stand above the rest. Plus, as you may know, the dragon that needs slaying is a practical effects marvel that came from the innovative minds at Industrial Light and Magic. Yes, that’s right, Phil Tippett of Star Wars fame took the original concepts for the dragon and developed a reference model for Danny Lee of Disney. This model was then used to create the final creature, which consisted of several different effects and animation models. Every penny spent on the result is right up there on the screen, as the Dragon’s Lair sequence during the climax still astounds. Oh, and this film inspired the development of Go-Motion, ILM’s mostion-control technology being adapted to stop-motion animation.
The story may seem rather simple, but it’s jam-packed with texture and historical details aplenty. Urland is a sixth-century post-Roman kingdom being terrorized by a 400-year-old dragon named Vermithrax Pejorative. To keep the dragon at bay, the kingdom sacrifices beautiful virgins. But when Valerian (Caitlin Clarke) sets out to find help from the last sorcerer, Ulrich of Cragganmore (Ralph Richardson), the adventure to slay the dragon begins. Ulrich’s apprentice Galen (Peter MacNicol) emerges as the owner of Ulrich’s magic amulet needed to defeat the dragon once and for all, though the villagers have a lot of other bad ideas running in parallel to appease the dragon.
Dragonslayer is the kind of campy, goofy fun you’d find in Disney movies, but it’s anchored deliberately by care and detail given to the world in which the story inhabits. All of these characters don’t function like our typical fantasy heroes, as Robbins’ vision hews much closer to historical fact, surmising that these people languishing in poverty within the feudal system would be inspired, even motivated by the appearance of magic in their lives. Such an approach removes much of the flair in other fantasy films, though it emphasizes the power of on-screen magic when the special effects take hold.
No matter if you’re a first-time watcher or seasoned fan of Dragonslayer, you’ll find that this fantasy tale is filled with the kind of artistry sorely missing from modern-day blockbusters. Hell, all the magic elements in the film are explained in a much more unfussed manner than the convoluted, tired exposition dumps you see in the Marvel Cinematic Universe nowadays.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-rays
Peter MacNicol, the hero of Baby Geniuses, brandishes an enchanted spear and goes off to fight a dragon in Dragonslayer, presented here with a one-disc (UHD100) release that comes housed in a collectible steelbook. The steelbook is housed in a glossy slipcover as well. The 4K disc boots up to a standard menu screens with options to play the film, explore bonus features, set up audio and video, as well as select scenes.
Real World War II-era flamethrowers were used for Dragonslayer’s titular beast’s fire breath, and I’m happy to report that Paramount Home Entertainment throws just as much heat at the audience with their absolutely phenomenal 2160p presentation of the film. Sourced from a brand-new restoration approved by director Matthew Robbins, this release astounds with a massive technical upgrade over previous releases that does its utmost to preserve all of the film’s effects as they were intended to be seen. Film grain looks terrific as well, even on the effects shots where grain can sometimes look shaky and unnatural. Flesh tones are tuned in just right as well, not overly red or flush with other colors.
Much of the film takes place in darkness and rooms with low light, and I’m happy to report that blacks are deep and inky at all times. The source looks to be in amazing condition, as I didn’t notice any pock marks or damage, even on the frames with in-camera effects. What’s more, those gorgeous castles and expansive vistas in North Wales look natural. The Dragon’s Lair sequence in particular sees great gains in clarity and resolution over previous releases. This isn’t just another job well done by Paramount, this is a night-and-day upgrade that soars in about every way possible.
Speaking of huge, soaring upgrades, Paramount Home Entertainment provides Dragonslayer with a wonderful Dolby Atmos track that balances dialogue, the boastful score and breathless sound effects with remarkable ease. Dragonslayer was originally released in many different tracks depending on the location – Vistasonic sound for select theaters, Dolby tracks for 35mm prints and 6-track audio for 70mm prints. That’s part of why it came as no surprise to me that Dragonslayer would have this rollicking and fun surround sound presentation. Your subwoofer will kick in for specific moments of attacks, crashes and crumbling rocks. And when that dragon starts to breathe fire, you really feel it in the low end. This track is given some remarkable height with the Dolby Atmos upfiring speakers, with many different effects coming through those channels. I’m already fondly recalling the dragon’s wings flapping and debris falling in those channels. All in all, a stellar presentation.
While special features may be a bit spare on this release, it’s worth noting here that the hour-long doc about the making of Dragonslayer will be an essential watch for fans of special effects wizardry. Director Matthew Robbins and ILM figureheads Phil Tippett and Dennis Muren are on hand to talk breathlessly about the production and reception of the film. A lot of concept art, sketch work and footage can be found in this doc, which functions like a breezy featurette you’d see on Disney Plus or something of that nature. Some screen tests are included as well, although those don’t reveal much about the production.
You’re a wizard, Har…err, sorry.. wrong franchise. Matthew Robbins’ 1981 cult favorite Dragonslayer, a rare collaboration between Disney and Paramount, is now available in stunning 4K Ultra HD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. This 4K Blu-ray release boasts an absolutely breathtaking new restoration, plus a boastful Dolby Atmos track and some special features to enjoy. This release comes Highly Recommended!
Dragonslayer - 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray Standard Edition