'Dragonheart 3' Revives Franchise With Fine VFX, Clunky Story

Directed by: Colin Teague; Runtime: 97 minutes
Grade: C-

There's a certain charismatic charm to Rob Cohen's original Dragonheart that continues to help the dated fantasy film weather the tests of time. Sean Connery's magnetic, witty tempo as the dragon merges well with the story's family-friendly morality tale and the fiery gravitas of battles (and some comedic deception), overpowering the aging visual effects and mustache-twirling evilness. The cash-in straightforwardness and unconvincing ... well, pretty much everything about its DTV follow-up, Dragonheart: A New Beginning, rightly deserves to be ignored in preserving the brand's legacy. That's precisely what Dragonheart 3: The Sorcerer's Curse aims to do, cranking out a prequel of dragons sharing hearts with humans, tyrannical rulers, and a grand adventure amid the flying beasts' rebound from extinction that acknowledges little from the previous films. Alas, this direct-to-video installment in the franchise from British TV director Colin Teague suffers its own issues: despite reputable production design and tolerable performances, its leaden tone and patchy, strained plotting keep it from ever really getting off the ground.

Distanced from the other films as a loosely-connected "prequel", set roughly a century before the events of the original at a time when dragons had vanished, The Sorcerer's Curse begins in the muddy, bleak atmosphere of a stronghold where knights -- using the terms loosely for the abusive, tax-collecting brutes -- are trained to defend the realm from barbarian "clans of the North" on the other side of a massive wall. Unable to pay an incurred fee to get into the knight's service, a talented swordsman, Gareth (Julian Morris), sets out one night beyond the wall to the impact point of a comet, fabled to carry riches that will cover the coin he owes. When he reaches the comet, he discovers something far more valuable and problematic: a dragon and the eggs it's protecting, forcing Gareth to rethink his plans. Adventure ensues once the two develop a rapport after Drago (Ben Kingsley) saves his life, forcing them to band together with other unlikely allies against a coven of magic-wielding druids with nefarious plans for the dragon.

Dragonheart 3 looks fairly impressive, and not just for a direct-to-video release. The environments and designs aren't anything fantasy aficionados haven't seen before, from the land's verdant forests to the muddy, weather-beaten keep where "knights" maintain a tight grip over commoners, but the production values give the setting gritty texture and admirable scope. Reputable costume designs add touches of distinctiveness to the characters, especially the hybridization of Scottish and Elvish tribal garb present in Gareth's resilient love-interest, Rhonu (Tamzin Merchant). Sober cinematography from The White Queen's David Luthor keeps the frequent hustle-'n-bustle grounded in some semblance of reality, despite his reflexive small-screen perspective on conversations. By and large, the computer-generated effects are splendid, too, especially when it comes to animating Drago's movements in both reptilian form or as a ghostly, translucent apparition. Everything here has the makings of a better-than-expected, albeit smaller in scale, extension of the franchise.

Regrettably, the script from first-time writer Matthew Feitshans never quite figures out how to fuse together the old and the new, uncertain about whether it should be capricious high fantasy or gritty low fantasy amid dull exposition that masquerades as lore-building. While tossing borrowed elements from other popular franchises into this setting -- a massive wall that keeps out feral tribes, freshly-hatched dragon babies that'll aid in conquering lands, etc. -- the film awkwardly stumbles upon a situation where a dragon and a human once again share a heart, where unstable dragon eggs surviving the impact of a fallen comet clash with a outcast wannabe-knight hoping to find riches spilled out of it like a pinata. Heavy-handed themes involving corrupt knighthood and oppressed tribes commingle with a lunar curse, shadows used as teleportation doors, dragon eggs and other magical devices that do whatever the story needs at a given time. It's a combo that might've been tolerable had the film not taken itself quite so seriously, excluding a few stale attempts at slapstick humor, overcompensating through its emulation of Game of Thrones and avoidance of the mistakes made in the inane A New Beginning.

Those frustrations continue into the dragon himself, Drago with a G instead of a C, and it has nothing to do with the digital presentation or Ben Kingsley's dedicated, electronically-distorted vocal performance. Instead, issues arises in an early contrivance that promptly limits the dragon's abilities to unleash its magnificent capabilities, thus taking Drago away from the potential for much hands-on interaction -- in other words, the action -- with Sir Gareth's journey and the battles waged with a group of magic-wielding druids. That might have been fine had Gareth and Drago compensated for that limitation with a bond similar in strength to Bowen and Draco, but the days-old kinship between the comet-riding dragon and Julian Morris's flip-flopping rogue never gets convincing enough to reach that point, despite the story moving forward as if they already have with the franchise's ultra-evocative theme song playing in the background. Even with the dragon unleashing those anticipated powers in a brassy finale, opportunely restrained as they are, it's too little too late after such a tedious buildup continues to assume that it's made the audience believe in the film's inconsistent whimsy and rushed personal bonds.

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