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; they’re powerful, and magical, and they sometimes 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 of theatergoers.
While dragons feature in dozens upon dozens of fantasy films, movies that include dragons as main characters are relatively few and far between. Still, there are a couple of very worthwhile offerings out there for cinephiles willing to do a bit of adventuring.
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Updated on July 29th, 2022 by Tanner Fox: Dragons often come part-and-parcel with realms of high fantasy and Arthurian adventure, but that needn’t always be the case. The Harry Potter films make frequent mention of dragons and do away with much of the sword and sorcery romanticism of the genre, and movies like Studio Ghibli’s Spirited Away offer a totally different take on the concept of flying lizards.
It’s true that movies featuring dragons are relatively few and far between in a modern cinematic landscape of superheroes and post-apocalyptic dystopias, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any to be found whatsoever.
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 some recognition. 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.
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Merlin was nominated for six Emmy Awards and four Golden Globes, and it currently boasts an 82% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Its biggest accomplishment, however, was luring so many new fans to the fantasy genre. Filled with drama and magic and loosely based on real-world historical events, 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 be familiar with the show’s sequel, Merlin’s Apprentice.
Flight of the Dragons (1982)
Some of the best dragon movies 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-acting talents like John Ritter and James Earl Jones and pieces of fantasy tomes like The Flight of Dragons and The Dragon and the George to create an animated treat for all ages.
Newcomers to the film should not let its underwhelming cover art deter them from seeing it. It features the same dramatic and 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.
An adaptation of the young adult novel of the same name, Eragon is the classic tale of a young boy fighting to defend his people and home against invaders with a high-fantasy twist. Indelliably bonded to a dragon known as Saphira, the two develop a kinship as they quest to thwart impending evils.
Eragon was a celebrated children’s novel, but it didn’t translate all that well to film, with critics branding it with a rancid sixteen percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Still, it’s enjoyable enough for younger audiences, and it may have fared a bit better had it not come on the heels of the titanic Lord of the Rings trilogy.
While actor 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 Arthurian tale, as well as the story of David’s triumph over Goliath, in more ways than one.
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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, managing to portray a dragon on the big screen in a way no other film had quite accomplished.
Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)
Most Tolkien fans say that no film could ever truly do the books complete justice, but no one could deny the mesmerizing effects of the early 2000s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. When viewers first lay eyes on those swooping fell beasts during The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, few could have walked away without 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.
Pete’s Dragon (1977)
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 uplifting, and, although it only scored a 56% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, families enjoyed the 1977 movie’s musical numbers which featured performances by Helen Reddy, 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. While the 2016 remake took a few liberties, it was ultimately received as a superior modernization of the original.
Few movies portray dragons as female creatures. Not only did Shrek feature a pink, eye-lashed dragon that wore lipstick, 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 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 Shrek’s sidekick.
Dragon was a cutting-edge CGI creation at the time, and audiences loved it. The 2001 film saw three sequels, and an upcoming fifth film is said to be in the making. 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.
Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019)
Godzilla’s status as a kind of dragon is up for debate, but King Ghidorah, the central antagonist of 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters, definitely qualifies. A massive, hydra-like creature capable of breathing lightning, Ghidorah is every bit as threatening as the titular monster.
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The film divided audiences and critics when it debuted; while writers and reporters reviled its penchant for big, loud action sequences, fans heralded it as the ultimate popcorn movie. While he may not be a particularly deep or complex villain, King Ghidorah is a perfect fit for the film, and he’s an utter terror on-screen.
In 2014, Angelina Jolie portrayed one of the most famous movie villains in a new light in Walt Disney Pictures’ Maleficent, and she was accompanied by one of the most striking dragons ever added to a film. 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, the movie’s original source material, deserves an honorable mention, as well. 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. It was a truly exciting scene for its time, and it was very likely the best scene in Sleeping Beauty.
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
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. A key component of the Triwizard Tournament is the dragon battle, but, in the book, readers encounter several varieties of dragons. They also get to meet Charlie Weasley, a character who is completely ignored in the films but is beloved by 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 dragon scenes in the franchise.
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 grow and devour humans, enraptured viewers and paved the way for much more realistic dragons in today’s films.
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Although Willow can only be called a modest box office success, 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, according to Slash Film, director Ron Howard has told reporters to “never say never” when it comes to a possible sequel.
Reign of Fire (2002)
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.
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 considered it to be pretty lackluster, but fantasy fans enjoyed Bale’s bravery, Butler’s selflessness, and McConaughey’s wide-eyed wildness. The visuals of a war against dragons in a live-action movie were unique and satisfying, and the film won a Festival de Cine de Sitges Award and was nominated for a Saturn Award. It was also developed into a video game.
The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)
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 made the rest of the movie worth seeing. The dragon’s lust for gold and vengeance was palpable on-screen, and 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.
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.
Spirited Away (2001)
Perhaps the best representation of an Asian dragon in 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.
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Most of Miyazaki’s films are so magical 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 it’s earned enough audience approval to solidify it as an all-time great. It has made over $289 million around the globe and rapidly became one of the highest-grossing movies in the history of Japanese filmmaking.
How to Train Your Dragon (2010)
While children’s novels don’t typically translate all that well to the silver screen, one major exception is How to Train Your Dragon. 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 new traits such as cat and dog-like behavior, making him the most coveted dragon on Earth.
The Neverending Story (1984)
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 have been known as the Leslie Knope of dragons. 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.
His enormous brown eyes and fuzzy fur might have been odd in 1984, but the popularity of Wolfgang Peterson’s movie remains stable, with more 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 the hearts of both young and old viewers.
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 easily won fans over with his sarcastic commentary and curmudgeonly persona.
The film even ended on a bittersweet note, 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.
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Sara Sanderson is a writer, author, and teacher who produces content for a variety of publications, both on and offline, beneath various names. Sara has been writing professionally for 26 years. Their writing has been featured in numerous magazines, literary journals, digital projects, educational media, websites, nonprofit materials and marketing campaigns. They have also written several books.
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