The Gloriously Unexpected, #8: ‘Dragon Hunters’ (2008)

by Gillian Kerruish

December has been a rather trying month – underlined most notably by the death of my previous computer. But, after a sufficient mourning period, and a quest to overcome my computer-less state against all odds, I’m back up and running. And what better way to break the proverbial champagne bottle, than with an adventure story?

A French, German, and Luxembourgish collaboration, Dragon Hunters never fails to take my breath away, grabbing me from the get-go with no holds barred. It starts quietly, panning over a beautifully-rendered, parochial landscape. But even in those first few seconds, the quiet is pregnant, waiting. It doesn’t take long before the entire landscape is blown to post-apocalyptic ash. It doesn’t matter how many times I watch the film, this opening will seize my imagination and smash me against my seat every time. And that’s just the first few moments.

The visual stimulation offered by a mechanical calendar during the opening credits, each piece fitting perfectly, is as though they rallied the best clock-makers and music-box designers to come up with a machine that is both beguiling in its delicacy and hypnotic in its intricacy. Set against the unique musical talent of Klaus Badelt, in a stirring mesh of full orchestra, martial drums, eerie vocals, and the occasional non-traditional string, I find myself wanting to go back and watch the credits over again, just so that I can catch every last visual and musical motif.

At face value, the story is simple enough: two wanderers – an aspiring dragon-slayer Lian Chu (Forest Whitaker), and his self-proclaimed manager Gwizdo (Rob Paulson) – are tasked by a powerful but ailing local lord, to hunt down the biggest bad in a world full of dragons. They set off on this epic quest accompanied by their…dog? I hesitate to name it thus, since it seems to be brighter than its human companions, and it can shoot fire. It’s not too late to ask for one of these for Christmas, is it?

They are joined shortly by the runaway niece of their employer, Zoé(Mary Mouser), who declares that she’s off to become a knight, just like her idol “Silver Knight Gothic”.

Never mind that girls are apparently not allowed to become knights, she’s going to do it anyway. I officially love this girl! The dialogue is vibrant and thoughtful, the characters’ personalities playing off each other to perfection: the quiet warrior who likes to knit, the money-hungry sidekick who is too cynical by half, and the starry-eyed girl who is given to breaking into off-tune song about heroic deeds at the drop of the hat. (And let’s not forget the super-intelligent ‘dog’, whose sotto voce commentary has me cackling, much to the confusion of my son.)

Their quest takes them across breath-taking landscapes, where the law of gravity seems to have a tenuous grasp on the various planetoids, villages, and flora. They meet and battle dragons as you’ve not seen them before, which speak to the ingenuity and imagination of the designers. As a hardened fantasy geek, not even I was prepared for the concept of ‘Big Red’: a dragon with a wicked grin, a wicked sense of humour, and a thousand eyes. (You’ll have to see this one to believe it.)

And here is where my love for this film is compounded: the sheer genius of the world-building team. This is a world that defies physics, skirts on the outer limits of magic, but somehow it works. The sheer scale of design and attention to detail has me sitting slack-jawed. Drawing inspiration from countless sources, I can feel childhood nostalgia being dragged in multiple different directions. From the grand art of Middle Earth, the intricacy of the Myst series, the smoothness of The Longest Journey, the heart-wrenching nonchalance of the Death Star…everything about this world is at once both familiar and new, like a half-buried memory. And it is beautiful.

This unquestionable mastery in design, in story-telling, in musical inference leads to a climax that has me on the edge of my seat: their meeting with one of the most terrifying monsters to grace childrens’ film; The World-Gobbler. Nothing prepared me for this creature. I dare say if I were prone to nightmares, this one would feature quite heavily in them. Our mismatched heroes are outmatched by leagues, and it will take a phenomenal jump to overcome what feels like the culmination of every fear one can conjure, embodied in a single entity.

Whether this film was largely overlooked, simply because it was a European indie, or it was maybe a little ahead of its time, it deserves a space on your shelf. From the astounding artistry, to the uniquely fascinating score, to the heart-warming story of becoming more, of love, and of family, this film is well worth a watch.

Gillian Kerruish lives at the southern tip of Africa, and spends a lot of time bending the English language to her will. She’s seen more movies than any healthy adult should. She also claims that this qualifies her to write about movies. She might be right.

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