Dragons! Insert a fire-breathing behemoth or a sage-eyed, scaly guardian into a movie or book and it almost always raises its entertainment value. From wyverns to Naga, Bewilderbeasts to Swedish Short-Snouts, dragons appeal to people of all ages, and why wouldn’t they? They are like better versions of dinosaurs: powerful, magical, and sometimes they even talk. If the dragon in a film is dull, the filmmakers just aren’t trying hard enough. Their stories are shared across the world, inspiring both wonder and terror in generation after generation.
By 2016, there ought to be dozens of dragon films to choose from. Unfortunately there’s a dearth of dragon films in terms of numbers, but there remain a good fistful of movies featuring dragons that are must-sees for any dragon aficionado. In honor of another dragon title hatching this year on the big screen, the live-action version of Pete’s Dragon, here are The 15 Best Dragon Movies Of All Time.
Technically, Merlin is not a movie. It was a made-for-TV miniseries featured on NBC in 1998, but given its quality and following, it deserves a spot on the list. Some fans argue that the scene in the film where Merlin’s love Nimue is sacrificed to a dragon is the best scene in the miniseries. Whether or not that is true, it cannot be denied that the scene brought dragons into living rooms across the nation during prime time TV. Fans of Game of Thrones may get a little blasé about seeing Drogon on screen (though they may not– Daenerys’ dragons are often episode highlights), but this first “dragon sighting” for many viewers was nothing short of incredible.
With an 80% “Fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, Merlin was nominated for six Emmy Awards and four Golden Globes. It’s biggest accomplishment, however, was luring so many new fans to the fantasy genre. Filled with drama, (sometimes liberally interpreted) history, magic and simple good storytelling, Merlin served as a stepping stone toward the influx of fantasy productions in mainstream media, paving the way for television shows like Grimm, Once Upon a Time and Supernatural. Fantasy fans may also familiar with the show’s sequel, Merlin’s Apprentice.
14. Flight of the Dragons
Some of the best films about dragons are animated, which makes perfect sense. It hasn’t always been possible to capture the majesty, magic, and even brutality of dragons on the big screen, especially when the technology just wasn’t in place for it yet. Take The Flight of the Dragons, for example. Released in 1982, it combines star voice-talents like John Ritter and James Earl Jones, pieces of fantasy tomes The Flight of Dragons and The Dragon and the George to create an animated treat for all ages and to ask the captivating question of whether magic and science can coexist.
Newcomers to the film should not let its underwhelming cover art deter them from seeing it. It features the same dramatic, gorgeous yet somehow gritty fantasy style used in movies like The Last Unicorn. It is a rare type of film that simply isn’t made anymore, which, while a shame for the genre, is testament to how far creators have come in terms of film-making technology.
It’s all fun and games offering up virgins for the local dragon to eat– until one of those virgins is your daughter. While Peter MacNicol may distance himself from his 1981 film, Dragonslayer still maintains a cult following. Between its general weirdness, darkness, and “saving the damsel in distress” theme, Dragonslayer recalls the archetypal dragon tale, as well as the story of David’s triumph over Goliath, in more ways than one. It even includes a lottery system for sacrifices to its dragon, which is still a popular mtif today.
The movie featured a surprising amount of gore for its subject, incorporating some borderline horror elements into its backbone. Today’s dragon fans might see it and consider its special effects both too outdated and too dark, but the film was a huge achievement in cinematography and special effects at the time, portraying a dragon on the big screen like no film had quite done before.
12. Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers
In many ways, Tolkien fans say that no film could ever truly do the books complete justice, but no one could deny the mesmerizing effects of the The Lord of the Rings‘s CGI scenes. When viewers first lay eyes on those swooping fell beasts during The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, theaters everywhere filled with goosebumps. One could argue that the Nazgul scenes from Return of the King are even more mesmerizing. While the iconic moment between the Witch King and Eowyn definitely deserves mentioning, it was in Osgiliath where viewers first glimpsed the fell beasts that the Nazgul rode while hunting the One Ring. Amid the creatures’ deafening wing-swishing and ear-splitting cries, audiences could almost smell their stench and feel their rancid breath.
Also known as Nazgul-birds and hell-hawks, the fell beasts were originally more like a pterosaur, according to Tolkien. Peter Jackson’s fell beasts were more like wyverns, with snaky appearances and no beaks.
11. Pete’s Dragon
Though it is one of the more lighthearted dragon films, Pete’s Dragon is not without its darkness. Between the abuse of a backwoods adopted family and the threat of having his dragon murdered, mutilated, and eaten as magical medicine, Pete’s childhood wasn’t exactly a rosy one. Still, the main message of the film is an uplifting one and, although it only scored a 47% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, families enjoyed the 1977 movie’s musical numbers, with performances by Helen Reddy and Mickey Rooney and Charlie Callas, who voiced the goofy animated dragon.
The lovable nature of Eliot, combined with his round, hand-drawn features and support of Pete, made him a favorite among children and adults alike who had experienced the pain of being alone. The animation is also similar to that of two list honorable mentions, The Reluctant Dragon and The Sword in the Stone. The 2016 adaptation of Eliot will be live action and feature a furrier dragon.
Few movies portray dragons as female creatures. Not only did Shrek feature a pink, eye-lashed, and lipsticked dragon, but the movie also saw her fall in love with a talking donkey, a first for any genre. Most dragon movies feature minimal-to-zero light comedy, but Dragon in Shrek begins as a menace to battle within the whole “damsel in distress” trope and then evolves into a love-struck punchline. In later films in the Shrek series, Dragon becomes a serious love interest and even ends up making donkey-dragon hybrids with the series’ sidekick, Donkey.
Dragon was one of the first tastes of a dragon made with modern CGI animation and audiences ate it up. The 2001 film saw three sequels and an upcoming fifth film is in the making, due for release in 2019. Dragon’s special effects improved throughout the franchise and the character was utilized once again as a fearsome beast during the Shrek Forever After time-warp. DreamWorks Animation skyrocketed as a company following the success of Shrek, and the role of Dragon, among the rest of the fairy tale creatures, was a big part of that success.
In 2014, Angelina Jolie portrayed one of the most famous movie villains in a new light in Walt Disney Pictures’ Maleficent. Although the dragon in the film took form from her loyal servant Diaval rather than the titular fairy herself, between the dragon, the creatures of the Moors and Maleficent’s own magnificent wings and magic, this film is one of the best modern dragon movies. It features a fantastic battle scene with a dragon, as well as magic at every turn. In addition to giving a villain her humanity and a plausible backstory, it also featured a heroine at the helm, exciting little girls everywhere to don Maleficent costumes and tote their stuffed ravens everywhere from trick-or-treating to show-and-tell.
Sleeping Beauty deserves an honorable mention here. Not only did it inspire the Maleficent film, but the attack of the animated dragon in the movie is one of the most thrilling animated sequences, predating modern CGI effects– a truly exciting scene for its time and very likely the best scene in Sleeping Beauty.
8. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Fans of the Harry Potter film franchise who have never read the books are really missing out when it comes to Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (not to mention the rest of the books). A key component of the Triwizard Tournament is the dragon battle, but in the book readers come face to face with several varieties of dragons. They also get to meet Charlie Weasley, a character completely ignored in the films, but beloved among the fanbase. Creatures make up the most amazing moments of Goblet of Fire, but the dragon scenes were such huge fan favorites that there is even a dragon ride in the Wizarding World of Harry Potter.
The Harry Potter universe is not limited to one book or film when it comes to dragons, either. Gamekeeper Rubeus Hagrid adopted and hatched a dragon, Norbert, from an egg in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, and Harry, Ron, and Hermione ride a Ukrainian Ironbelly during one of the best scenes in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
Willow was one of the first fantasy movies many lovers of the genre ever experienced. While its troll looked more like a cheap King Kong costume and its two-headed dragon is positively archaic by today’s special effects standards, it still managed to thrill viewers who fell in love with it in 1988. The scene where Willow kicks a hatching two-headed dragon into a moat only to witness it exponentially grow and devour humans enraptured viewers, paving the way for much more realistic dragons in today’s films.
Although Willow can only be called a modest success in terms of sales, like many fantasy films, it still has a large fanbase. Between its weird creatures and Warwick Davis’s reluctant yet steadfast heroics, it still appeals to audiences today. It was nominated for two Academy Awards and director Ron Howard has told reporters to “never say never” when it comes to a possible sequel.
6. Reign of Fire
Dragon tales are typically set in ancient history, making the 2002 futuristic film Reign of Fire a particularly exciting take on the fantasy. Not only was it an entertaining post-apocalyptic film that predated the current demand for dystopian media, but it also endangered the entire human race in a most unique way: through dragons attacks.
The premise sounds pretty kitschy for a 21st century movie, but Christian Bale, Matthew McConaughey and Gerard Butler were able to pull it off and then some. Critics failed to find it terribly successful but fantasy fans enjoyed Bale’s bravery, Butler’s selflessness, and McConaughey’s wide-eyed insanity. The visuals of a war with dragons in a live-action movie were unique and satisfying, as the humans became the hunted in a dragon-dominated world. Box office stats give the movie a modest success and the film, winner of a Festival de Cine de Sitges Award and nominated for a Saturn Award, was also developed into a video game.
5. The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Many fans agree that if there is anything to enjoy about Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films, it is Benedict Cumberbatch’s portrayal of the greedy dragon, Smaug. The dragon’s special effects and haughty persona, not to mention his fun media interviews, made the rest of the movie worth seeing. The dragon’s lust for gold and vengeance was palpable on screen. Smaug’s sharp reptilian features, cunning golden eyes and, velvety-turned-murderous voice blend together to create a fearsome, wicked creature like the world has never known. Many of the other best dragon movies led to the development of Smaug, the best modern-day depiction of a dragon the world has seen yet.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug was a critical success as well as a box office hit, earning $958 million worldwide. It made even more cash than The Two Towers and The Fellowship of the Ring, although many fans claim to love the latter films much more.
4. Spirited Away
There is a severe paucity of films featuring Asian dragons. While Disney’s Mulan features the dragon Mushu, portrayed by Eddie Murphy (who also loaned his vocal talents as the paramour to another dragon on this list), the best representation of an Asian dragon in a film is Haku, the River Spirit in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated film Spirited Away. Like many Miyazaki characters, Haku is a blend of light and dark, battling his hunger for power against his desire to be a good person. In dragon form, he obeys his mistress, the witch Yubaba, while still fighting to protect the protagonist of the film, Chihiro. Ultimately, it is Chihiro’s story and it is she who saves them both in the end.
Most of Miyazaki’s films are so magically delicious that they put the one-note, two-dimensional characters in other animated features to shame and Spirited Away is no exception. The film has collected enough critical acclaim to prove its mettle and enough audience approval to speak for its imagination and enjoyment. It has made over $289 million around the globe and rapidly became the number one grossing movie in the history of films in Japan.
3. How to Train Your Dragon
Most films that vastly vary from their books are big misses with their biggest fans, a big reason why some of them are not on this list. One exception is How to Train Your Dragon, arguably the best modern film about dragons. The 2010 Dreamworks Animation feature scored a 98% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes and launched an entire franchise of merchandise, video games, TV shows, and sequels.
The movie is much more than its commercial success. The touching story of a nobody who becomes the most important person in a community due to his compassion and conviction, How to Train Your Dragon is both hilarious and moving. Its dragons are wildly imaginative and rival Pokemon in some circles as “pets” to catch. Toothless, the film’s central dragon, combines the traditional qualities of a flying, fire-breathing dragon with revolutionary new traits, such as cat and dog-like behavior, making him the most coveted dragon on Earth, even earning him his own Build-a-Bear.
2. The Neverending Story
Falcor, the luck dragon, is modeled more closely after a Chinese dragon than a European one, but most viewers remember him as a giant, shiny puppy who liked children– and not for breakfast. The most beloved creature in The Neverending Story, this flying, smiling luck dragon exhibited so much passion and positivity about Atreyu’s quest that he might as well been known as the Leslie Knope of dragons. His enormous brown eyes and fuzzy fur might have been odd in 1984, but the popularity of Wolfgang Peterson’s movie remains stable, with parents introducing their childhood favorite film to their children every year. Falcor’s gleeful inclusion in a mostly harmless revenge scheme on Bastian’s bullies also secured his place in hearts both young and old.
The look of Falcor may have provided some inspiration for David Lowery in the new Eliot in the 2016 Pete’s Dragon film. Eliot has been shown with furry, cat-like features that bring both Falcor and Toothless to mind.
Possibly the best film about dragons, Dragonheart is the story of Draco, a dragon who dared to share his heart to help keep a human prince alive. Unfortunately, his shared heart was wasted on a cruel tyrant, leading Draco to lose his faith in humanity. Partnering with Dennis Quaid’s scheming, dragon-slaying ex-knight, Draco, voiced by Sean Connery, easily won fans over with his sarcastic commentary and curmudgeonly persona. The film even ended in tragedy, securing a better world for the kingdom and earning Draco his spot among the stars with his fellow dragons. Critics might have found the film banal in terms of its script, but no one could deny the lure of its visuals and aesthetic value. Since its release, it has also inspired a video game and two sequels.
Although it’s a shame that Dragonheart’s sequel was too terrible for words, its original story combined the delightful fantasy tale of two jaded characters tricking villages out of their money with the first truly realistic modern-day depiction of a dragon, earning its spot as one of the best dragon movies of all time.
Are there any great dragon movies that we missed? Sound off in the comments.