Thursday, March 28, 2019

My Top 10 Favorite Dragons (from Movies and TV)

Looking back at the earliest years of childhood, there are certain things that we toddlers can just take an instant liking to. As far back as I can remember, I was a boy that loved Dinosaurs, reptiles and above all … I loved Dragons. They just seem to combine all the coolest elements a mythical creature can poses. There like Dinosaurs, but with wings and can breathe fire, so what’s not to like? To this day, Dragons are my favorites fantasy creatures, and they come in such a wide variety. They can be fearsome monsters, or they can be loyal companions. Speaking personally, I always felt that the image of a dragon has always been present through my child hood, and I preferred to view them as allies to a brave knight. Although, they admittedly can make for cool villains too. So, for this countdown, I’ll be ranking my own personal favorite Dragons that have soared across the screen in either Movies or TV.

#10 King Ghidorah from the “Godzilla” franchise 

What’s cooler than a regular fire breathing Dragon … well, how about a three headed dragon from outer space that shoots lightning bolts from his jaw. Aside from being such an awesome looking creature, he’s also credible for being Godzilla’s arch foe. Obviously, Godzilla is no stranger to giant monsters, but King Ghidorah was in a whole other league, as his most powerful and reoccurring adversary in his long running franchise. We also see Ghidorah take on various forms and appearances through the franchise, which makes him all the more unique, and an all-around awesome dragon.

#9 Eustace from “The Chronicles of Narnia: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” 

When three children embark on yet another adventure in the mystical world of Narnia, one of the boys named Eustace gets greedy, and tries stealing gold. For punishment, he’s transformed into a Dragon, and while he’s no longer able to speak, his mind hasn’t changed beneath his scaly new appearance. In a nice twist, it’s when the boy takes a new form that he finds himself connecting to his traveling companions, whom he’d been neglectful of as a human. His relation with the enchanted talking mouse is one of the humblest aspects of his journey. Also, while it’s common place to encounter Dragons during a fantasy adventure, it’s quite the rare twist to have someone actually transform into one and remain that way through the whole film. It’s actually kind of cool, I mean imagine getting back from the adventure and getting the privilege to brag about being a mighty fire breathing dragon … that’s awesome.

#8 Slifer the Sky Dragon from the “Yu-Gi-Oh!” series 

The Heavens twist and thunder roars signaling the coming of this ancient creature, and the dawning of true power. In the world of “Yu-Gi-Oh!”, kids play a card game featuring a variety of monsters as the main characters. What the children don’t realize is that the monsters on the cards connect to ancient, mythical beasts that once threatened mankind. Now in modern times, the doormat souls of these fearsome beasts have awakened and seek guidance in the modern world. The mighty Dragon of the Sky named Slifer stands as one of the most powerful creatures of them all, to the point where he’s regarded as a God among both mortals and monsters alike. What makes this dragon so unique is that it’s not inherently evil or good, he’s just a mass of power that’s loyal to whomever commands it. His design is awesome, he conveys a mighty presence, and his theme music is about as epic as they get.

#7 Falkor the Luck Dragon from “The Never-Ending Story” franchise 

A little luck can go a long way when you’re a young boy sent on a quest to save a mystical world from destruction. Fortunately for the boy hero Atreyu, he’s got a little more then just luck on his side … he has, well, a luck dragon. This unique creature is named Falkor, and he serves as both friend and guide for the young hero. He’s dignified, humble, and even has a personality that’s all his own. He’s basically a Yoda equivalent, just in the form of a dragon that looks like a cross between a dog and a furry snake. It’s certainly one of the most distinct dragon designs I’ve ever seen, but he’s also an icon of 80’s fantasy creatures.  

#6 Gringotts Dragon from “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2” 

During a mission to defeat their greatest enemy, Harry Potter and his companions find themselves trapped in the underground caverns of Gringotts wizard bank. It’s there the young heroes discover an albino dragon forced to live as a slave in the underground mines, and is subject to the whim of some rather cruel goblins. With no other means of escaping, our hero’s release the dragon, and ride on his back to freedom. It’s a short and simple sequence, but a refreshing treat to see hero’s aiding a dragon as opposed to battling it like yet another obstacle. Both the digital effects on this dragon and its design are top notch, but what I really love is its animal behavior. When it breaks free, it doesn’t just fly off, it stops, looks around and takes in it’s first breaths of freedom before ascending into the sky. While the Harry Potter series has had its fare share of dragons, my personal favorite is the one that our heroes showed the most compassion for.   

#5 Smaug from “The Hobbit” trilogy 

He is fire … he is death! While the fantasy genera is home to many dangerous creatures and sinister foes, none are more evil or more lethal then the mighty dragon Smaug. Ever sense his inception of the novel “The Hobbit”, Smaug has had a secure slot as one of the most iconic dragons of all time. Just the concept of an intelligent dragon guarding a giant underground treasure chamber is classic in of itself. What really stands out is Smaug’s cinematic portrayal in the live action Hobbit movies. In this series, Smaug is voiced by the distinguished Benedict Cumberbatch, and to say that he shines in the role would be a gross understatement. His chilling vocals, matched with his motion captured body performance make Smaug feel more alive then most other movie creatures. The effects are incredible, the voice is dominate and Smaug himself lights up the screen with his epic presence.    

#4 Earth Sea Dragons from “Tales from Earth Sea” 

Unlike most dragons of fantasy, the dragons from the enchanted land of Earth Sea are peaceful creatures … that is except for when evil looms on the horizon and throws nature off balance. It’s only then that the once majestic dragons become savage monsters. Another thing that makes these dragons unique is that their humble nature makes them as close to humans as creatures get, to the point where they can even take both the form and life of a human. The 2006 anime “Tales from Earth Sea” has always been a favorite of mine, and one that I feel deserves more attention. These dragons are some of the most stunning ever put to film, brought to life through extraordinary animation and have their own mythos that make them so much more interesting then your typical fantasy creature.  

#3 Maleficent’s Dragon form from “Disney’s Sleeping Beauty” 

One of the most classic staples of the fairy-tale genera is seeing a prince ride off to rescue a princess who’s locked in a tower, guarded by a fire breathing Dragon. That is the classic formula, and this is the classic final battle that set the template for sword wielding heroes and monstrous foes. Maleficent was already a first-rate villain from Disney’s gallery, and her final form as a deadly fire breathing dragon has always stood out to me as the greatest evil dragon ever captured on film. She’s fast, she’s deadly, her design is awesome, her green tinted flames are unique, and her screen presence is unmatched. While this climax is admittedly very short by today’s standards, it’s still quiet the spectacle for an animated movie dating all the way back to 1959.

#2 The Dragons: Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion from “Game of Thrones” 

When it comes to the beautiful female lead in a fantasy setting, she’s usually paired with something whimsical, like a Unicorn, but for Danny Storm-born … it’s three loyal Dragons for the price of one. More than just capable pets, Danny viewers her dragons like her own children, and has such adorned the title “Mother of Dragons”. She certainly has the fighting spirit of a Dragon, and seeing her connect with these three mighty beasts is nothing short of epic. What makes it so fascinating is that, while all three are mostly loyal to Danny, they're still dangerous animals with minds of their own, and that can make them unpredictable. There’s even a fair amount of dramatic depth as we see Danny struggling with how to take action from her dragon’s occasional rouge behavior. As far as CGI is concerned, I honestly think these are the most real looking Dragons ever viewed on screen, which is impressive considering “Game of Thrones” is a TV production. It’s also fascinating to watch their evolution unfold, as they begin as newly hatched babies, and over-time grown into full sized monsters of fire breathing destruction. Beautifully detailed, and connected to one of the greatest characters from one of the greatest fantasy franchises, all three sour above the previous Dragons of my list with ease … but there’s still one left.    

Before I sour with my Number One favorite Dragon, here are some Honorable Mentions … 

Draco from “Dragon-Heart

Mushu from “Mulan

Vermithrax Pejorative from “Dragonslayer” 

Girl Dragon from “Shrek

Guardian Dragon from “The Pagemaster 

#1 Toothless from the “How to Train Your Dragon” franchise 

There have been some special Dragon companions on my list, but for a young Viking named Hiccup, he’s got the greatest pet of all time, a fire breathing dragon lovingly nicknamed toothless. Whether you’re a kid or a kid at heart, you can’t help but wish for a special connection of your own with a creature as awesome and as lovable as this. It may seem odd to call a dragon cute, but honestly, there’s so much more to Toothless then just an adorable mug.  This dragon is just brimming with personality, charismatic traits, and a loving bond with his master that allows him to just warm our hearts. His lovable nature alone earns him a spot on my list, but the fact that such a playful personality comes from a monstrous dragon like this makes him so much more special and personally, to call him my favorite dragon would be underselling it … I think he’s one of the absolute cutest, and greatest animated characters of all time.    

The End and time to come back down to the ground.

Disney's Dumbo (1941) (Movie Review)

     March 2019 will mark the premier of Disney’s new live action remake of “Dumbo”, which will be directed by Tim Burton. Initially, I rolled my eyes, thinking that Disney must be running out of ideas to put the time and money into a remake of “Dumbo”. Then I began to think back on the original, and began asking myself … just how much of a movie was there to the original “Dumbo” anyway, and could Disney possibly do more with a remake? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always had some fondness reserved for the original, just as I do for any Disney classic, but it’s never really stuck with me over the years as any kind of personal favorite either. Yet, even with that said, there is still a number of things from the original “Dumbo” that I absolutely hold close to my nostalgic heart. The more I thought about it, the more I wanted to revisit it, and give it a watch through the lens of a grown adult. So, before we take flight with Tim Burton’s live action remake, lets rewind back to 1941 to see how much of the original classic still holds up. Is it better then I initially gave it credit for, or is it derivative to a fault … let’s find out.

      This was Walt Disney’s fourth animated production, and it’s interesting to try and categorize this film among the studio’s other animated offerings. Most of them you can round up in their own individual group titles, like the fantasy films, or the Princess Fairy Tales, or the cute pets, or the adventures in the jungle, and so forth. “Dumbo” by contrast has its own distinct identity, with a cartoony circus setting, yet still feels right at home with all the other animated Disney classics. The titular Dumbo is a baby elephant who was born with abnormally big ears, and as such is considered an outcast among all the other circus animals. People mock, and laugh at him, leading up to a fateful day in which a bully goes too far in teasing the pore kid. This alarms his mother, and she goes on the offensive. Unfortunately, her sudden outburst gets her locked up and separated from her child. Now Dumbo finds himself alone and outcast-ed. Yet, there’s still a chance that he might make it to the big top, that is with the help of a little circus mouse, who aims to not only make a star out of Dumbo, but also reunite him with his mother. What he needs is a good show stealing act, and Dumbo’s big ears might just hold the secret to his own success.

    The first and most important thing this movie got right was the character of Dumbo himself. This was the first main title character in Disney history to have no spoken lines of dialog at all, yet he’s still an enduring lead who holds the show together with ease. In many ways, you could look at Dumbo as a main influence for future cute silent characters like WALL.E or Toothless from “How to Train Your Dragon”. With his curious perspective of the world around him, abnormally large ears, and unbelievably big heart, Dumbo plays to our emotional sides, and he always left this impression on me as a child, to the point where I always wanted to take that little elephant home as a pet. In my view, Dumbo is about as heartwarming and lovable as Disney animal characters get, and he’s absolutely the beating heart that carries the film. It’s also interesting to note that his mother Mrs. Jumbo speaks all of one word, and likewise remains silent though the remainder of the picture. This leads to a number of scenes in which mother and son are seen bonding, and it’s all visual storytelling as neither verbally speak, which is always an admirable trait that I love to see utilized in animation.

     Another detail I always found interesting about “Dumbo” is that it’s one of the rare animated Disney films that doesn’t feature a villain … well, unless you want to count that gossipy group of female elephants who are always neglecting and ridiculing Dumbo. I can’t really categorize them as villains, sense they don’t hatch any nefarious schemes of any sort, but I’ll admit, those crones pissed me off more than most other Disney villains ever did. Rounding up the characters is the circus mouse Timothy, who follows in the same vain as Jiminy Cricket as the guide and conscience to our wide-eyed lead. Although, I personally never found Timothy as memorable as the former, or on par with many of the animal sidekicks to follow. The one unique trait that Timothy offers is a twist on the classic folklore in which Elephants are inherently afraid of mice. The film even playfully mocks the concept when the two meet for the first time, and there is something special about seeing an elephant form a deep friendship with a mouse.     

     Unlike other animated Disney films which commonly take place “Once Upon a Time”, “Dumbo” takes place in a more contemporary setting, and yet it’s still packed with fantasy elements akin to a children’s fable. It was through “Dumbo” that I was introduced to the concept of storks delivering newborn babies to their parents. 

Whenever someone says “The Stork has Landed”, I immediately think of that opening sequence, paired with the “Look out for Mr. Stork” song. The image of the parachuting baby animals is like something from a Dr. Seuss book, or maybe it’s just reminding me of that scene from the live action version of “The Grinch”. Fun fact, the lead Stork that delivers Dumbo is voiced by the great Sterling Holloway, who would become one of Disney's most reoccurring vocal talents. Sense he's most famous for being the original voice of Winnie the Pooh, it's easy  to recognize his voice, even when he's playing different characters. Just as another quick side note, I've always loved that obnoxious narrator leading-in to the storks appearance, as it's such a product of the 40's I can't help but chuckle. The world of the circus is also a very loony one with colorful characters, and unique oddities, but that’s what gives the movie it’s identity. Right from start with the colorful opening title sequence, this movie creates a distinct identity, and carries a charm that’s all its own. I love all the colors and all the little details that bring this circus to life, and make it a character in-of itself. Some of the memorable circus highlights include a disastrous elephant pyramid, and a loony show with clowns dressed like firefighters. Hmmm … I wonder if they somehow inspired that scary firefighter clown from “The Brave Little Toaster”.

     One of my favorite little details is that, aside from all the talking animals, the circus train is apparently even a sentient being, with an expressive face, and robotic voice. 
There’s even a moment in which he pays a little homage to “The Little Engine that Could”, right down to quoting the famous lines “I think I can, I think I can”. Now, I have to comment on the song “Casey Junior”, because whenever I watched this movie as a kid, that song always got me in the mood to go to Disneyland. A popular, long running ride from the theme park is the Casey Junior train, which takes you on a tour through the history of animated Disney films. 
The ride itself comes complete with the song, and as such I’ve always viewed it as a staple of the Disney park. While on the topic of music, “Dumbo” actually has quiet the collection of memorable songs, which usually seem to slip under the radar for current Disney fans. I think most people would identify the song “When I See an Elephant Fly” as one from “Dumbo”, but they won’t know the lyrics off by heart the same way they would for songs from “Aladdin”, “Frozen”, “The Lion King” and so forth. As a kid, my favorite musical number was actually the “Song of the Roustabouts”, which plays during the opening, when the circus is being set-up in the rain. It’s hard to describe, but there was something about the tone, and beat of this song that just felt very intimidating, intense and all around very exciting. I wouldn’t be surprised if this song was an influence on the opening “Frozen Heart” song from “Frozen”, or even the opening “Virginia Company” song from “Pocahontas”. Truthfully, I think the soundtrack to “Dumbo” is much stronger then most people give it credit for. Heck, this film won the Oscar for best scoring of a musical picture.

     Okay, now it’s time to address the big moment that has stuck with me … all my life. In short, Disney has had no shortage of sad, dramatic moments, but only two animated Disney movies ever made me cry on repeat viewings. The first is “The Fox and the Hound”, and the other obviously is “Dumbo” … and you all know what scene I’m talking about. The song number “Baby Mine” revolves around Dumbo visiting his mother who’s still imprisoned. She can barely fit her trunk though the barred window, Dumbo can’t even see her face, yet the two manage to share a warm embrace, she cradles him, sings him a lullaby, and … dang it all, even as an adult, this scene still gets to me. I can’t explain it, no matter how old I get, there just no dry checks while viewing it. Whenever I hear that peaceful melody, I can’t help but get all chocked up inside. Without question, this is one of my favorite moments from any animated production, and if it doesn’t get you the least bit misty-eyed, then I’m afraid you just don’t have a soul, lol. The late Betty Noyes provides the singing, and she really hits it out of the park. The song itself got an Oscar nomination for best original song, and was on top of all the hit charts for a while, but sense then it’s sadly fallen by the waist side, and is no longer a house hold name. People of the internet, we need to turn this around, because “Baby Mine” dissevers to be a house hold title again.        

      One thing I love about re-watching these old classic Disney movies is seeing all the content that would be deemed either questionable or inappropriate for today’s viewers. “Dumbo”, like many Disney films from this age features on-screen smoking, drinking, and that’s just for starters. Of course, the most controversial topic of all comes in the form of The Crows, who help Dumbo discover his hidden talent’s. While I’ve always viewed them as fun, laid-back characters with witty comebacks, many have labeled them as racially offensive stereotypes. The thought honestly never even occurred to me, after all they do serve a pivotal role in Dumbo’s journey, and they sing the films most iconic song. Still, I did a little research to see if there’s any details I’m missing that could justify the controversy. Apparently, the leader of The Crows is named Jim Crow … oh boy, now we’re in sensitive territory. The term “Jim Crow Laws” dates back to the late 19th century and refers to both state and local laws that enforced racial segregation in the Southern United States. The term also ties into white stage actors that would imitate African American tricksters. Wouldn’t you know, Jim Crow in the movie is voiced by a white actor … one Cliff Edwards, who was previously the voice of Jiminy Cricket from Disney’s “Pinocchio”. While all this is certainly questionable, I’m whiling to give the movie a pass as it never once addresses Jim Crow by name. Much like how the character Sunflower is no-longer present in “Fantasia”, I think “Dumbo” can slide with no verbal acknowledges of Jim Crow.

      Truthfully, I’m surprised more people aren’t raising issues about the scene in which Dumbo and Timothy get drunk. Granted the scene is played for laughs, as the two mistake a barrel of liquor for water, but it’s still alarming on some level. After all, Dumbo is still just a baby, and he gets completely toasted … that’s rather lethal for someone so young. 

Oh, but of course it leads to one of the film’s most iconic sequences … “The Pink Elephants of Parade”. This fever dream is chaotic, colorful, a pinch creepy and showcases some of the most inventive animation to come from the studios golden age. It almost plays out like a musical short that would have fit inside “Fantasia”. It’s an absolutely pointless detour to say the least, but it’s also the most entertaining scene of the whole film by far. No other classic Disney movie features something as off the wall crazy as this. The select imagery, visuals, designs, and even the changing moods are completely bonkers, yet fascinating to watch. I loved it when I was a kid, and even as an adult its still a lot of fun watching all these weird images pop on screen. I should also note that some of the animated cells from the sequence were used again during another trippy dream sequence in Disney's "The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh".     

     If I have any reservations with this movie, it would have to be the big reveal in the third act. After getting acquainted with the Crows, Dumbo is presented with a “Magic Feather”, and discovers that he can in fact fly. Shortly after, we come to the movies climax, in which Dumbo makes his grand performance. Our hero discovers that it was never about the feather’s “magic”, it was his big ears the whole time that granted him his flying abilities. So, he shows up all the clowns and elephants that did him wrong, Dumbo becomes a celebrity, his mother is freed, and the movie just sort of stops. Typically, a revelation of this sort would be the center point of a story, and the moment when the movie really begins. Imagine the possibilities of telling a story about a flying elephant? This is where I see the live action remake might have some potential, as it revolves entirely around this premise of a flying elephant, as opposed to leaving it for the very end. Plus, I never felt that Dumbo did anything especially useful or heroic with his flying abilities. In comparison to something like “Rodolph the Red Nose Reindeer”, Rodolph’s noise didn’t just glow, he also guided Santa’s Sleigh through a terrible snow storm, and gained respect as a hero of the day. Dumbo really just stole the spot light, which is all he really accomplished, and I always wanted him to do a little more then that. Still, the film closes on a positive note, his mother is set free, and I suppose the experience we shared with Dumbo was just rewarding enough to compensate.    

      In the end, if I were to describe “Dumbo” in just one word, it would be … lovable. While I still don’t think it contains one of the most engaging character stories, it’s unmistakably a heartwarming and uplifting experience. Dumbo himself in my eyes is still Disney’s most adorable lead character, and his journey … however short it might be, still contains a great deal of emotional substance. It’s one of those movies I look back on with fondness for select moments. “Baby Mine” is still one of the greatest emotional highlights I’ve ever experienced from an animated picture, and “The Pink Elephants on Parade” is still one of the most inventive animated sequences that the studio has ever produced. Admittedly, this isn’t a Disney movie that I re-watch often … probably once in the span of nine years, but I’m happy to say that the movie holds up overall. It’s a film with a heart of gold at the center, and it’s something that every family should share with their little kids.

I give “Dumbo” ... 4 stars out of 5.