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Thy Humble Serpent

The silly season is upon us, so the best you can hope for down at the local multiplex these days is silliness with a touch of style, a dash of sense and an absence of tornadoes.

Enter Dragonheart, which combines the romance of huge, toothsome beasts with the classic movie attraction of knights in shining armor--and still has the good grace to laugh at itself. According to the dish, $22 million of the picture's $57 million budget went toward creating "Draco," the 18-by-43-foot dragon at the heart of the fable. In truth, the big fella isn't even a hunk of plastic and fur with a couple of motors inside him: He exists only as computer imagery. But Jurassic Park dino designer Phil Tippett and director Rob Cohen have given him personality aplenty. He laughs. He cries. He breathes fire. He flies, kind of, flapping through the sky like an airliner with three engines shot. He's also got a conscience the size of Slovakia, which is the place they filmed this, despite problems and degradations no crew should have faced.

But listen, Draco even speaks the King's English. And once you get past the jarring realization that no less a presence than Sean Connery is the voice inside all those spines and scales and flapping tails, then go along with the absurdity, Draco quickly becomes one of the more appealing behemoths of recent years. Wondering why he seems somehow familiar? Connery never appears on the screen, but the moviemakers have lifted his facial expressions and gestures from earlier films and passed them on to their virtual dragon. Accordingly, Draco chuckles knowingly and looks skeptically upon fools, but he never gets to drink champagne with Ursula Andress.

Enough tech talk. Charles Edward Pogue's screenplay won't win any awards for originality, but the armies of kids Dragonheart is trying to attract have probably never heard of King Arthur, Don Quixote or even JFK. Pogue's cooked up a standard tale of tenth-century redemption in which a disillusioned dragonslayer named Bowen (bearded Dennis Quaid, complete with broadsword) and the down-in-the-mouth dragon join forces to vanquish an evil and ruthless king. Naturally, the team also features a red-tressed fair maiden, Kara (Dina Meyer), who turns out to be the real revolutionary of the bunch, and a wacky, sidekick friar, Gilbert (Pete Postlethwaite), clearly inspired by Cervantes's Sancho Panza.

Who's your money on? Certainly not the local tyrant, Einon, who's played with neurotic relish by the angular, ferret-faced English actor David Thewlis. Thewlis showed how talented he is in Mike Leigh's Naked, and here he's just right as the kind of monarch who likes to flick a noble peasant's eyes out with the tip of a red-hot sword, shoot an arrow or two into the chest of a dissenter, and put most of the realm to work rebuilding his wrecked castle while he lounges around swilling mead. In his youth, though, this incorrigible had our man Bowen as a weapons instructor and a mentor, and when the callow prince was mortally wounded in battle, the dragon brought him back to life. Now, knight errant and beast--both the last of their kind--are dedicated to bringing King Einon low.

Plotwise, that's about it. The movie's deeper pleasures lie in the Connery-as-flying-dragon ploy, which gains a kind of surreal majesty as it goes on, and in Quaid's tongue-in-cheek swashbuckling. He knows he's been miscast here (or cast against type as a brilliant joke), so he plays his flat American accent to the hilt and the helpless irony of a modern hero trapped in a steel skirt to a fare-thee-well. The last time we saw this kind of thing, Robert Duvall and Gary Oldman were wearing buckled pilgrim hats in the dreadful movie version of The Scarlet Letter, and they both made the most of the absurdity. So does Quaid.

To the kids in the balcony, none of this will matter a whit, of course. They'll simply want their lovable, heroic dragon to prevail (with or without the help of James Bond) and to see the plucky heroine, hair aflame in the wind, get some family vengeance against the big bad king. Meanwhile, Postlethwaite, who made an international name for himself as the father in In the Name of the Father, has a curiously insubstantial role here. Insubstantial until you learn that Dragonheart was shot more than two years ago--before the release of Father and before the similarly named Braveheart.

Why the delay? Who knows? But this cunning mix of childhood fantasy, reheated Camelot and inside jokes has a little something for everyone as the mercury soars and moviegoers' overworked brain waves yearn for a vacation. Sean Connery's the lucky one, though: He did all his work in an air-conditioned California studio and never had to endure pigs' knuckles in Bratislava.

Dragonheart. Screenplay by Charles Edward Pogue. Directed by Rob Cohen. With Dennis Quaid, David Thewlis, Sean Connery and Dina Meyer.

 
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