Before Dreamworks teachings you How to Train Your Dragon on March 26th, you really need to bone up on your movie dragons. They’re something of an endangered species in the medium, since they’re an expensive special effect no matter how you bring them to life, and not every giant lizard qualifies: Godzilla and his Japanese ilk belong have created a specific sub-strata of giant monsters, dinosaurs are something else altogether and the oversized reptiles of Conan the Barbarian and The Giant Gila Monster are simply unusually large examples of actual species. (And that thing from Cloverfield is an alien, incidentally.)
No, a dragon has to be a fictional creation, and here are the best dragons in feature film history, besides Draco from Dragonheart. Draco’s not so much a dragon as he is Sean Connery… in drag(on).
1. Vermithrax Pejorative – Dragonslayer
The most awesome dragon ever filmed also has the coolest name. Say that sucker out loud: “Ver-mi-thrax Pe-jo-ra-tive.” One of the last dragons in the world, Vermithrax Pejorative has a deal with a neighboring country: they feed her one virgin per solstice and she doesn’t kill everyone in the world. From an economical perspective that’s a pretty good deal, but since none of the rich or royal virgins ever seem to get picked in the “random” lottery the serfs decide to hire wizard Ralph Richardson to defeat the beast. When Ralph Richardson dies before he can so much as leave the house, it’s up to his apprentice Peter MacNicol (yes, of “Ally McBeal”) to kill Vermithrax Pejorative and maybe even get the girl if he’s lucky. But Vermithrax didn’t get the #1 spot just for her awesome name. She’s also the deadliest and most indestructible dragon on the list – killing her proves almost impossible – and the stop motion animation used to create her is still some of the best ever filmed.
2. Falkor the Luck Dragon – The NeverEnding Story
There aren’t terribly many kind-hearted dragons on our list but Falkor’s the king of them all, in part because he’s the kind of dragon that lets you ride him in order to scare the pants off the bullies at school, and in part because he looks like a big white dog. How many of these other dragons would you really want to run up to and scratch behind the ears, yelling “Who’s a good boy?! You are! You are!”
After Atreyu’s horse Artax dies in one of the most traumatizing scenes in family movie history, Falkor the Luck Dragon promptly comes to the rescue which, let’s be honest, is pretty lucky. This friendly and perpetually optimistic furry monster turned out to be the breakout character of the franchise, and enjoys one of the most unique and memorable dragon designs in history. And he’s just so darned cute!
3. Maleficent – Sleeping Beauty
Maleficent remains one of the greatest villains in Disney history. Sure she’s impeccably drawn (and kind of hot in a “Suicide Girls” sort of way), but she had one of the most unique villainous schemes in the entire animated pantheon. After enchanting Princess Aurora to sleep forever until awakened by her true love’s kiss she finds and imprisons Prince Phillip, the true love in question. She doesn’t even want to kill him… In fact, she plans to set him free when he’s a feeble octogenarian so he can save his lady love and then die of old age in her young arms. (Damn, that’s cold.) When Prince Phillip escapes after barely a day of captivity (boy, is that guard fired or what?) she transforms into the coolest animated dragon in history: a gorgeous inky black monstrosity spewing green flame at our hero in one of the most striking action sequences ever to grace an all-ages Disney flick. Or any other kind of flick, for that matter.
4. Quetzalcoatl – Q, The Winged Serpent
So let’s say that cultists have resurrected the ancient dragon god Quetzalcoatl in modern day New York City, and the beast is eating the heads off of hapless citizens on the tops of skyscrapers: What do you do? Well, if you’re 1970s grindhouse action superstars David Carradine (Bill of Kill Bill fame) and Richard Roundtree (I’m just talking about Shaft), then you’re cops trying to take the beast down. If you’re character actor Michael Moriarty (Bang the Drum Slowly), then you’re a getaway driver and failed pianist who discovers the location of Quetzalcoatl’s nest and tries to sell the information to the city for a truckload of cash. Q, The Winged Serpent is a clever and unique monster movie that more than earns its cult following, but don’t forget at the heart of it all is a badass dragon god that’s decapitating New Yorkers left and right.
5. Smaug – The Hobbit
Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass were some of the biggest animation directors in American history, having directed such classic television specials as “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” not to mention films like The Last Unicorn and this still highly-respected animated version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which brought the dragon Smaug to life for the first time. This terror of dwarven and humankind alike spends his time resting atop his enormous hoard of gold and jewels and at first seems ambivalent towards Bilbo Baggins’ meager attempts to burgle him blind. But when he (incorrectly) surmises the identity of his intruder he goes on a murderous fiery rampage that can only be stopped by firing an arrow into a preposterously small hole on his chest, where but a single scale is missing. It’s a tricky shot for even a master marksman, but all it takes is a single arrow in the chest to take him down? That’s why the reason why he’s #5 on the list. The only reason. (Rankin and Bass also directed the The Flight of Dragons, a clever animated film with a surprisingly scientific take on the subject of flying reptilian beasts, which is also well worth your time.)
6. Eborsisk – Willow
Free advice: If you’re ever confronted with a troll, don’t shake a magic stick and it and yell “Bellalockt.” The result, which in the movie Willow arises unexpectedly at the Battle of Tir Asleen, is an Eborsisk, a dreaded two-headed fire-breathing dragon named, cheekily enough, after two of television’s more prominent talking heads: Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert. The Eborsisk turns out to be the spoiler in the battle that saves Willow and Madmartigan from certain doom, distracting General Kael’s forces just enough to keep our heroes alive (but not, tragically, enough to protect Elora Danan from being babynapped again). The Eborsisk is a uniquely-designed and gorgeously animated dragon that audiences have never forgotten, even if they never knew its proper name.
7. The Legendary Black Beast of Argh! – Monty Python & The Holy Grail
For a movie in which every character carries a sword, there really wasn’t a lot of action in Monty Python & The Holy Grail, but of course that was the point. These are the same Knights of the Round Table who got their butts handed to them by an adorable little white rabbit, after all. But just when it seemed like victory was at hand, and they knew the true location of The Grail – “The Castle Argh” – they were attacked by the ferocious, horned and multi-eyed Legendary Black Beast of Argh, brought to life by acclaimed director Terry Gilliam’s signature animation style. So powerful, so magnificent is The Legendary Black Best of Argh that our heroes are only saved at the last minute, by unbelievable luck, when the animator miraculously suffers from a heart attack. (Luckily for all of us, Gilliam eventually made a complete recovery.)
8. The Hungarian Horntail – Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire
If it weren’t for unnecessarily labyrinthine plot (Voldemort’s plan for Harry doesn’t make a lick of sense), Harry Potter & The Goblet of Fire would probably have gone down as the best Harry Potter book and movie. As it stands it’s still one of the highlights, due in large part to all the badass challenges Harry has to confront over the course of the story, not the least of which is snatching a golden egg from the clutches of a man-eating dragon. Naturally, “The Potter Luck” kicks in and Harry ends up facing off against the Hungarian Horntail, the meanest dragon in the whole of the Potterverse. The epic fight takes Harry out of the playing field and into an extended chase that causes thousands of gold pieces of damage to Hogwarts (which probably should have disqualified him from the match, if you ask us), and remains one of the standout action sequences in the entire franchise. Until The Deathly Hallows, of course…
9. Lodac’s Dragon – The Magic Sword
Nobody in their right mind would call Bert I. Gordon – the director of such Grade Z sci-fi “classics” as The Amazing Colossal Man and The Village of the Giants – a “good” director, but he was a master of low-low-low-budget special effects and really pulled out all the stops for his best film, the sword-and-sorcery epic The Magic Sword. Gary Lockwood of 2001: A Space Odyssey teams up with Estelle Winwood of The Producers to stop the evil wizard Lodac (the Basil Rathbone) from feeding a helpless princess to his pet dragon. (The dragon, as is repeatedly discussed throughout the film, subsists entirely on a diet of one princess a week, raising the question of just how many princesses there are in the world.) The climax reveals a huge, multi-headed, fire-spewing practical dragon puppet that would have been pretty impressive in any movie of the era, let alone Gordon’s. Basil Rathbone and his “Pet” both get serious bonus points for classing up a Bert I. Gordon joint, which for either of these legends of the screen was really slumming it.
10. The Komodo Dragon – The Freshman
Clark Kellogg (Mathew Broderick) isn’t in New York City for 20 minutes before Victor Ray (Bruno Kirby) has stolen everything he owns and all his money to boot. When Clark tracks Victor down he finds out that the money is gone, but he can have a coveted and lucrative job delivering packages for Carmine Sabatini (Marlon Brando, playing brilliantly off of his Godfather persona). Clark grimly suspects that he’s going to be transporting guns, drugs or maybe even a dead body, so it’s quite a surprise to learn that instead he just needs to take an endangered Komodo Dragon to New Jersey. (“But it’s an endangered species!” “Not anymore. It’s in New Jersey. It’s fine!”)
Clark and his roommate have a hell of time buckling the monster into the back seat, but it’s not until the Komodo Dragon breaks loose and wreaks havoc in a shopping mall that all hell really breaks loose. This lovable reptile seems to violate our rules – No real animals, giant or otherwise – but we made an exception here because the Komodo Dragon is probably the basis for the dragon myth to begin with. (Did you ever hear the phrase “Here there be dragons?” It’s the island of Komodo they were talking about.) The Freshman is easily the funniest movie on the list and one of the best comedies of the last few decades… maybe ever… in large part due to the Komodo Dragon, played here by a Monitor Lizard.
What? Like you can tell the difference?