Movie review: 'Dragon Rider' (2020)
Dragon Rider (trailer) is a 2020 computer-animated children's film, a German production (Drachenreiter) whose UK English dub was recently released online. Adapted from a best-selling children's book by Cornelia Funke, it's the story of a young dragon in the modern-day world, searching for a refuge where dragons can stay safe from mankind. Short version: You can skip this one.
The film was directed by Tomer Eshed (Flamingo Pride) who doesn't seem to have worked on anything this big before. The production company, Constantin Film, appears to have outsourced the animation to several studios, so it's not clear if there was a unified vision. The screenplay was adapted by... John R. Smith? Who, according to IMDB and its scoring system, is the genius behind Gnomeo & Juliet (5.9 out of 10), Sherlock Gnomes (5.2), and The Queen's Corgi (4.8).
Given that The Queen's Corgi is also the rare recipient of a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, it's a bit of a red flag. Dragon Rider's IMDB score currently sits at 5.5.
Story: A large tribe of dragons has been hiding in a valley for centuries, forbidden from flying, lest they reveal themselves. Human civilization, represented by pollution and the destruction of nature, will soon encroach on them. A young silver dragon named Firedrake (voiced by Thomas Brodie-Sangster, downplaying his British accent), who's unable to breathe fire, sets out to find a legendary haven for dragons called the Rim of Heaven. His sidekick is Sorrel, a forest brownie - kind of an anthropomorphic chipmunk with big ears and a very small tail.
Along their way they pick up a homeless, orphaned, gap-toothed human teenager named Ben, on the run from the police for stealing. He tricks Firedrake into believing that he's a "dragon rider", thanks to the convenient luck of meeting during the promotion of a film called How To
Train Tame Your Dragon. Escaping the police, Ben tags along only because he secretly thinks he'll become rich. Sorrel doesn't trust him.
The antagonist is a giant, golden robotic dragon named Nettlebrand, originally created by an alchemist to hunt down and devour dragons. The alchemist was killed by his own creation, but his purpose remains. He's got a tiny homunculus assistant named Twigleg, and is also inexplicably accompanied by a dwarf named Gravelbeard. Nettlebrand is voiced by Patrick Stewart! Acting-wise, he blows the rest of the cast out of the water. Except I couldn't stop thinking of him as, well, Patrick Stewart.
I've not read the book that the movie was based on, but after reading an online summary, it sounds like a lot has been left out. The Greytails, the family of rat cartographers, are gone. No special brownie abilities. No monastery. In the book, Firedrake requires moonlight to survive and flies at night; this is completely abandoned. The ravens and moon-flowers barely make an appearance. Nettlebrand travels in a weird mechanical submarine. Characters that survived the adaptation: the djinn, the dracologist, and Professor Greenbloom. The Internet and mobile devices are used at several points.
The film feels like it had a lot of potential, but the writing was a huge let-down. Firedrake is optimistic but naïve, gullible, and panics in a fight. Not much of a hero (or a hero's journey). Ben, the token human companion, doesn't work as an audience surrogate because he's a selfish liar. There's an attempt to make him sympathetic that falls flat; he's the only person who comes close to having a character arc, except it's too vapid to feel meaningful. Sorrel is… just kind of there? I have a hard time remembering if she did anything useful. I liked her - or tried to - except a lot of her dialogue is reduced to complaining about Ben.
The script is so thoroughly… enh. On the plus side, almost no toilet humor (and pretty minor at that). There's a travel montage set to music in the middle of the film; otherwise no one breaks into song. Well, someone tries, and it's nipped in the bud immediately. That made me really happy! But none of the jokes are memorable, and none of the dramatic moments feel moving. There's nothing to appeal to parents. Suspension of disbelief is required to accept that (most of) mankind seems unaware of fantastic creatures, and to accept that you can find obscure locations using a very un-detailed map of western Asia.
I didn't find the character designs very interesting, except for Nettlebrand. Dragon fans will probably feel let down by the cartoony look of Firedrake's rounded face. A few of his tribe, who don't get much screen time, have more traditional, western-style dragon-shaped heads. The scenic backgrounds are done really well, as are facial expressions and movement. Some of the flying and chase sequences were good! So animation-wise, it's decent for whatever budget they had.
Overall though, I can't recommended this movie. Watch it if you're curious, or if you've got young kids who need to kill some time. Fans of the book should probably avoid it.
I'm currently trying to catch up on a couple of foreign animated films. Most of them aren't very good (Sturgeon's Law), but hey, it's something to do while Covid is going on!
Have you experienced any furry media lately, good or bad, that you'd like to tell people about? Send Flayrah a review!
Cornelia Funke has not been well served by ... well, I was going to say Hollywood, but I guess this isn't Hollywood, is it? I've only read Inkheart (it was okay to good as a book), and I haven't seen the movie, but it had a reputation. I'll say that. I don't think either movie's quality is Funke's fault, but remembering the book, I can see her style of fantasy being hard to adapt.
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