(Dragon hunting isn’t a fairy tale)
Courtesy of Netflix, Natalya and I stumbled across a gorgeously animated film called Dragon Hunters (2008) or as its French upbringing calls it, Chasseurs de dragons. Directors Guillaume Ivernel & Arthur Qwak’s film is based on a television series of the same name. I learned from Scott Mendelson’s review for the Huffington Post that “Dragon Hunters was France’s official submission for ‘Best Animated Film’ at the 2008 Oscars.” According to Wikipedia (“Academy Award for Best Animated Feature”), Wall-E (Disney/Pixar), Bolt (Disney), and Kung-Fu Panda (DreamWorks) were up for an Oscar in this category in 2008. Wall-E won. Hardly a contest between the three though, wouldn’t you say? Yet as adorably Woody Allen-ish as Wall-E was, I would have been hard-pressed to vote for Wall-E over Dragon Hunters.
Every so many years, the World Gobbler awakes to, well, Gobble up the World. Lord Arnold who keeps a fantastic wall calendar of the events that lead up to the reawakening of the Granddaddy of all Dragons is in need of Knights to slay the Dragon. No one comes, and stuck with a Grand-Niece Zoe, Lord Arnold has no one to train, “It is not that I would rather you be a boy, my little girl, but the fact is you are not one. [Dragon] hunting just isn’t suitable for little girls.”
Zoe goes in search of Knights and is rescued by Lian-Chu. Lian-Chu is a dragon hunter and his best friend Gwizdo is a huckster who acts as his contracting agent. Their failures are somewhat comedic and they are unlikely heroes for the task that would await them. But Lian-Chu has an appointment with destiny, and he really is quite honorable. It is the promised gold that motivates Gwizdo and he convinces Lian-Chu that they will be able to retire to their little farm with the promised payment.
Play-acting as Knights they are soon off on their Quest with their rabbit-dog pet Hector carrying the luggage. Oh, and Zoe comes along. Not one to stay behind, nor to be sent to the Convent of the Crooked-Toothed Sisters for safe haven, Zoe insists on joining the Quest, “a naive little girl…who dreams of noble knights.”
The group encounters peril and oddities on their way to the End of the World. Their medieval realm is Fantastical, a world floating in open sky, crumbling at the edges, pieces breaking off and falling floating through the open space. It is incredibly rendered and jaw-dropping. The adventure that ensues isn’t too shabby either.
Zoe is really the only one of the group that plays at being courageous. Immersed in the fantasies of Knights and Quests, she sees only the adventure and romance of these kinds of Tales. Her hero is the Silver Knight Gothic, but Lian-Chu begins to supplant the hero in her mind, and she has every confidence in his abilities to defeat the World Gobbler.
Lian-Chu is less sure, but is willing to try, not wanting to let anyone down. But he has real reason to fear, understanding the peril he faces rather intimately.
Gwizdo is not about being brave, but being alive. And he would also like to see his best friend (only real friend) survive as well. He is not so easily charmed by the adoring fandom of Zoe, not that she offers him any adoration. His interest in Tales of Courageous Knights is how they might profit him. The world is all too real to him.
Zoe and Gwizdo are counterpoints and Lian-Chu stands rather quietly at the center. As the story nears its end, Zoe and Gwizdo must come together to help Lian-Chu succeed. He really is everyone’s only hope. And he is struggling.
While Gwizdo and Zoe are illustrated with energy, Gwizdo the more manic of the two, Lian-Chu is often silent, slower and more thoughtful. How well his expressions carry across is a testament to the animation.
Dragon Hunters takes all the adventure and proposed romance of the Knight’s Quest and humbles it. Not to worry, the film would not rob the Tale of such glorious endings. …or would it? The film interrogates the idea of pursuing glory for the sake of reward, or even with the expectation of it. At first, it seems amusing and “typical,” but the humorous tones shift to quite serious ones. It really is lovely.
Lian-Chu, Gwizdo, and Zoe are unexpected heroes; the latter two the least expected. What Dragon Hunters does well is maintain consistency in its characters. Each resist roles in which other stories might want to cast them and it is to ours and the story’s benefit that while the adventure takes its toll, they remain reluctant to change.
The landscape is magnificently realized, not just within the realm of Fantasy, but as an atmospheric device. So often, the characters are set precariously at the edge of falling, and the story rightly places them there. The Times are rightly terrifying and failure is an actual possibility, if not increasingly imminent. In most Tales/Films of this sort, especially the Family-/Child-friendly kind, they maintain an underlying sense of ease. There are little yet overt cues that keep you from falling off the edge of your seat. You are reassured of that happy-ending. Not so with Dragon Hunters.
The World Gobbler is so deftly terrifying and massive he seemed impossible to defeat. I was really wondering how Lian-Chu might do it. And if you find the solution to be a bit ridiculous (which I do not), it can’t be denied that it is still lovely.
The transitions are wonderful. The movements are often quiet. Dragon Hunters has a patience that I don’t think American animated films allow. There is a sequence near the end where the soundtrack changes and Gwizdo is floating on a small remnant of some village. This part of the film works to relay several complex emotions and it takes its time. I’m not sure Disney, Pixar, or DreamWorks would dare replicate it, nor do I think they could get away with it (which is too bad).
There is also a moment or two of humor I think only the Europeans can get away with as well, e.g. Lord Arnold’s assessment of Lian-Chu’s –er-Knighthood. Really, this a fun film for the whole family. The ways in which the story moves away from predictable lines is a big part of the film’s charm will be lost on the youngest ages, but is perfect for middle-graders and up. The haunting of real peril and probable failure returns to the Quest—finally.
Everything in Dragon Hunters is so beautifully imagined. The gorgeous visualization does not outwit the story, though it may take a second viewing of the film to get past the stunning vistas. Dragon Hunters really is a wonderfully crafted film. I highly recommend it.
France, Germany, and Luxembourg were involved in the making of Dragon Hunters; if you follow the “official website” link below, the trailer in French is fun. The English-version voice overs: Forest Whitaker – Lian-Chu; Rob Paulsen – Gwizdo, Bat 1 ,Bat 2, Sir Lensflair; Mary Matilyn Mouser – Zoe; Nick Jameson – Lord Arnold; John DiMaggio – Fat John; Jess Harnell – Gildas; Dave Wittenberg – Hector.
Dragon Hunters (2008)
Directed by Guillaume Ivernel & Arthur Qwak.
Written by Frédéric Engel-Lenoir & Arthur Qwak.
Editing by Soline Guyonneau.
Produced by Philippe Delarue
Music by Klaus Badelt.
Rated PG for some scary images, fantasy action and language.