directed by Rob Cohen
(Universal, 1996)

Dennis Quaid isn't the star of Dragonheart. Neither is Sean Connery, who never appears in the film but provides the voice of Draco the dragon.

No, the real stars of the film are dragon designer Phil Tippett, visual effects supervisor Scott Squires and the rest of the team who gave Draco such a marvelously lifelike appearance, including facial nuances which even looked something like Connery despite the creature's draconian features.

There have been plenty of dragons in films over the years. One of the best is still Vermithrax from the 1981 film Dragonslayer. But Vermithrax never spoke, nor did it do much more than roar, belch flame and generally menace the terrified populace of Urland.

But Draco -- this dragon has personality. He's the sort of dragon you'd like to sit down and have tea and a chat with. Not that he doesn't do his share of roaring, flame-belching and general menacing, but he does it with distinctive flair.

Besides his expressive face and body language, Draco also interacts realistically with his co-stars and the 10th-century settings around him. Knocking out a small portion of a villager's roof during one mock assault was a clever, subtle touch. But the best scene in the movie is Draco's initial battle with Quaid's warrior Bowen, a lengthy contest which is both dramatic and comedic and ends in a classic standoff between them.

Dragonheart isn't the typical story about a rampaging dragon; neither is it a feel-good tale where a gentle beast bonds with a misunderstood child. Rather, it's an exciting adventure, a medieval fantasy with plenty of action and conflict.

The film is peopled by Bowen (Quaid), an aging knight who still believes in the fading code of honor; Kara (Dina Meyer), a fiery villager who defies oppression; Brother Gilbert (Pete Postlethwaite), a poetic padre steeped in ancient lore and showing a surprising skill with a bow and arrow; and Einon (David Thewlis), the young, cruel king who receives a great gift and corrupts it beyond redemption.

I'd be lying if I said Dragonheart is full of fine performances. They're not; Quaid in particular is lackluster, swinging wildly between bitterness and wit, compassion and a callous lack of concern. He has many fine moments, but they're inconsistent.

Postlethwaite is excellent as the wandering cleric who falls in with Bowen in order to record his exploits. Initially a comic character, he grows into more when his newfound skill as an archer clashes with his nonviolent faith. Meyer is winning as the wide-eyed village girl who grew up too fast and found something worth fighting for.

Thewlis is effective as the evil king -- perhaps too good. He, like Lee Oakes as his younger self, demonstrates absolutely no redeeming values. Unlike Quaid, Thewlis is too consistent. When a character is so completely one-dimensional, he becomes a caricature.

The acting isn't great, but it's adequate. Particularly when the people aren't the stars anyway -- they're merely a backdrop for the marvelous Draco.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Buy Dragonheart from Amazon.com.