directed by Matthew Robbins
(Paramount, 1981)

Long before Peter MacNicol became an eccentric litigator on Ally McBeal, he was a bumbling sorcerer's apprentice.

The movie, Dragonslayer, remains one of the best magic-and-monster fantasy films on the market. It has its rough patches, and the special effects aren't always up to modern standards, but Dragonslayer is still a fun, gripping tale.

MacNicol is Galen, an apprentice with meager talents. His master, Ulrich (Ralph Richardson showing classic, subtle wit), was once mighty but is ancient and seemingly failing in his powers. Still, he's the last of the great wizards, so it's to him a ragged band of Urland refugees turn for help against the last of the great dragons.

Ulrich agrees, but before they can even begin the long journey, they're halted by Tyrian, warlord for Urland's King Casiodorus. Tyrian doesn't want meddlers stirring up trouble -- the annual lottery which sacrifices virgins to the dragon's appetite is better than the dragon's rampant devastation of the countryside -- so he tests Ulrich ... and Ulrich fails the test.

With his master dead, Galen begins manifesting new powers. Drunk with magical potency, he brashly agrees to fight the dragon in Ulrich's stead. His initial effort seems successful, but dragons are notoriously hard to kill. And dragons are also bloody annoyed when someone tries.

Dragonslayer succeeds for several reasons. First and foremost is the dragon. Vermithrax may not have the facial agility and charming manner of DragonHeart's Draco, but remember, Dragonslayer predates by more than a decade that kind of computer enhancement. Vermithrax is a more beastial dragon, an animal, and it acts and reacts accordingly. And, largely, it's done very well -- only one scene, where Galen tries a hands-on approach to dragonslaying, is poorly presented. Few movies have ever shown a dragon so realistically.

MacNicol handles a range of emotions well -- arrogance, trepidation, resolution and awkward romance. Caitlin Clarke, cast as the "boy" Valerian who brings Galen to Urland, is a good match for him -- I'm rather surprised she hasn't shown up on the big screen more often.

John Hallam is especially good as Tyrian. Although cast as a secondary villain in his opposition to Galen, he still believes he has the best interests of the kingdom at heart. Hallam has the difficult task of balancing loyalty and malice without ever seeming actually evil, and he juggles those balls well.

Peter Eyre as King Casiodorus and Chloe Salaman as the tragic Princess Elspeth are also good supporting characters.

OK, so there are some problems with the plot -- for instance, it seems like a kingdom with a standing death sentence for virgins would develop some method for eliminating potential candidates -- but hey, it's a fairy tale. That little hitch is more than balanced by other aspects of the story, such as the fate of the visiting cleric and the reactions of his faithful followers in the aftermath of his martyrdom. Elspeth's story also ends differently than first-time viewers might expect.

Nearly two decades after its theatrical release, Dragonslayer still ranks high in the genre. Only a poorly chosen soundtrack by Alex North and a corny final scene mar the experience. Otherwise, Dragonslayer still deserves a strong recommendation for fantasy fans.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

Buy the DVD from Amazon.com.