Title: Dragon Hunters (2008) (IMDb) (Chasseurs de dragons in its original French)
Director: Guillaume Ivernel and Arthur Qwak
Voice Actors (US dub): Forest Whitaker, Rob Paulsen, Mary Mouser
Score Composer: Klaus Badelt (of Pirates of the Caribbean fame)
Length: about 80 minutes, but it sure feels longer
Rating (US): PG for “scary images, fantasy action, and language”
Spoiler-free Synopsis: A pair of oddball conmen who pretend to be dragon hunters are guilt-tripped by a little princess into going on a quest to the End of the World to kill the mighty World-Gobbler, a great dragon that periodically wakes up to rampage and…well, just to rampage, I guess.
Reason for Watching: It was free On-Demand, I was bored, and I like to explore lesser known movies every once in awhile.
Movie Re-watchability: Bleh, low. Kids might like it and the art design is very interesting, but it disappoints in pretty much every other category.
Director Re-watchability: According to IMDb, Ivernel hasn’t directed anything else, and Qwak only has a little bit of French TV directing under his belt. I will be very surprised if this movie leads to any other decent gigs for them.
Recommendation: Nope, not worth your time. Oh, it’s harmless enough, I suppose. The background art is pretty neat, even surreal. But the story’s a mess of clichés ill-handled, pointless action sequences that aren’t very well-edited, a potentially interesting world that is poorly developed, and slapstick humor that ranges from mildly amusing to annoying. And the ending is bungled awkwardly. A better animated kids movie about dragons is How to Train Your Dragon.
There is one reasonably effective sequence in Dragon Hunters. Gwizdo, normally the comic relief, has been humiliated by his own cowardice (he was too scared to even try to help save the young princess Zoe while they were being chased by a swarm of tiny dragons) and had an argument with his best friend, Lian-chu, about the probably-fatal nature of their quest. Depressed and feeling worthless, he walks away through an apocalyptic landscape of floating rocks and little islands with abandoned ruins on them, the whole gray world seeming to fall apart around him, while an emotional, evocative song plays over the striking imagery. Then two talking creatures appear, the music jerks to a stop, Gwizdo opens his grating mouth again, and we’re back to normal. But for about 30 seconds, I could almost take the character’s emotions seriously.
Ah, characters. If your movie spends 90% of its time with just three characters (and burbling blue rabbit-thing), those characters should be interesting and likable. Our main duo is Lian-chu and Gwizdo, the former a slow-witted gentle giant who does all the hard work, and the latter his shrimpy wise-cracking “friend” who is constantly trying to sell their services as dragon-slayers to needy townsfolk, only to repeatedly get cheated after defeating the monsters because the townsfolks don’t think they are “credible” warriors. Lian-chu is a nice fellow, but he’s not given any depth beyond his love of knitting, which his mother taught him before she died in an attack by the World Gobbler when he was a kid. Otherwise, he’s the standard big guy with muscles who would rather just own a sheep farm and knit sweaters for people. (Is that a standard? I’m sure it is, somewhere.) Gwizdo, however, is as annoying and nonsensical as his name. He’s one of those pipsqueaks who never stop talking even though they have nothing to say. His character arc supposedly ends with him learning to love the little girl Zoe and be brave enough to support Lian-chu in the final fight, but it’s all pretty dumb and forced. And Zoe herself? She’s the spunky little girl who wants to be a “girl knight” and can’t stop bouncing in spasms of joy how “unreal” it is that Gwizdo and Lian-chu are willing to take her on their quest and away from her boring, blind old uncle, Lord Arnold. I greatly sympathized with Gwizdo when he grew so annoyed with her he wanted to wring her twig of a neck.
Oh yeah, this is also one of those movies where an annoying kid gets to tag along on an extremely dangerous, suicidal mission, despite all logic and attempts to the contrary on the part of the adults. Does anyone realize how bad this message is? I want my niece and nephews to grow up to be brave and active, too, but no kid should think it’s okay for them to run away from home and go on a deadly quest because “the power of belief” will give them victory. And if they join up with two strangers who lie, are incompetent, and won’t immediately take them home (regardless of the little kid’s protests), they shouldn’t believe that their innocence and joie de vivre will turn those schmucks into heroes. What rot.
But why spend digital ink taking something seriously when it doesn’t even view itself with much respect? Let’s look at the movie’s biggest virtue, its visuals. They’re pretty neat. The whole world is full of gray and silver clouds in which float rocky islands of various sizes, some barely small enough for a dog to sit on, others able to support massive castles and sprawling landscapes. Like the Hallelujah Mountains of Avatar taken to an extreme, and lacking any sort of explanation. And some of the islands are actually just balls of dirt and grass that appear to have their own subjective gravity. Characters hop onto them and can run on every side of these house-sized spheres, even upside down, and then leap off onto a flat-topped island when they please. Gravity goes out of its way to accommodate the whims of the characters, which is probably why they never seem to care that they are often mere feet away from sheer drops into an endless cloudy abyss. The islands drift often and break into pieces without warning, meaning you could wake up one morning to find your campsite (and friends) many miles away. This danger never seems to register with our heroes, but oh well. It looks cool.
So the design of the world is bold and neat, but I found too many scenes were dark and dingy in appearance, obscuring details and preventing me from really enjoying the full artistry on display. The scenes in broad daylight show pleasingly bright colors, but an alarming amount of the movie takes place at night, in dimly shadowed areas (like the castle and the forest), and in a gray wasteland of ruins under an overcast sky. For me, the occasional moody look was not worth the feeling of details obscured and lost animated potential. The contrast between the colorful daylight scenes and the depressing grayness that saturates most of the film is also too drastic – it feels like two different art styles were crammed together. Likewise the more realistic, almost gritty design of the buildings contrasts too much with the extremely goofy, stylized look of the characters. The blue rabbit-thing, while amusing and less annoying than Gwizdo and Zoe, nonetheless feels like he comes from a completely different movie; maybe Despicable Me (another superior adventure to this).
The whole aesthetic is confused. Sometimes it wants to be a surreal take on European fairy tales, sometimes it wants to be sort of Chinese, and then it just goes all bubbly modern kiddy-movie kitsch (again, the blue rabbit-thing, which I actually sort of liked). Look at the names: Arnold, Zoe, Gwizdo, and Lian-chu – all belonging to humans living in the same culture and kingdom! And the music, too. Sometimes it’s got a neat Celtic flair, other times it shifts into a very far-Eastern melody, but most of the time it’s the basic bombastic action epic stuff that hits our pulses but is instantly forgettable. And the frustrating thing is that this mix could be really inventive and fun if the movie would have gone far enough with its inspirations. Instead, it just toys with them before falling back into tired clichés and stylistic choices that lack meaning.
The ending is bungled, too. For a minute after the climax, it’s the standard happy ending, which is fine. It should have ended there. But then the trio goes back to Lord Arnold’s castle (he gave Lian-chu and Gwizdo the quest to kill the World-Gobbler) and he inexplicably acts like a big jerk, refusing to pay the heroes their promised reward and sending Zoe to her room (a mild punishment for disobeying orders by running off on a suicidal quest with strangers, actually). He gets told off, and then Zoe escapes from her room to go live with the two men on the sheep farm they are going to start. Then it ends. More than a little unsettling, if you ask me. Sure, we’re supposed to believe that Lian-chu and Gwizdo are super innocent happy dudes, but the idea that this little girl is going to live with two immature men she barely knows while abandoning her one living blood relative who, while a jerk, stills seems to care for her wellbeing and provide for her pretty decently just seems wrong. And a tad bit creepy.
Plus, the pacing of that ending is way off. Instead of ending on an emotional high (of whatever emotion is present in the movie), we’re jerked back into a slightly melancholy and irritated state by Lord Arnold’s bizarrely jerkish behavior and our heroes’ inability to get any respect (I mean, Gwizdo is still a loser, but at least Lian-chu deserves some respect). So we’ve got a creepy, family-unfriendly message paired with bad pacing – two horrible cinematic sins!
Dragon Hunters had a shot at being something special, I think, but it goes out of its way to attempt stale Disney-ish formulas, with little wit or imagination to compensate. It doesn’t explore its unique world, it fails to surprise or delight, its characters are uninspired and sometimes aggravating, and it can’t make up its mind about its art style or its story. I give the makers praise for trying, but they didn’t quite succeed this time. I didn’t hate the movie, but I can’t say my time was well spent seeing it.
Screencaps from DVDBeaver.com