Movie review: 'I Am Dragon'
I Am Dragon (trailer) is a Russian fantasy/drama film that came out in 2015 and yes I know it's technically a wyvern. When I showed clips of it to dragon furries, that's the first thing they said, in a tone of voice like I'd gotten their hopes up and then betrayed them.
For a live-action film, it uses a lot of computer graphics (around 85%), and looks pretty good! The setting felt very real to me. Production costs were about $18 million, and it flopped at the box office. As movies go, it's... ok. I say this with some reluctance. If you're a fan of dragons, you're not missing much.
Back-story: A line of dragons lives on a secluded island, and in a medieval town, the people perform a ceremony and song with which they offer their maidens as sacrifices. This summons the dragon who flies off with one of them, until one day a warrior decides he's going to rescue the woman he loves. He finds the island (too late to save the maiden), slays the beast, and the sacrificial rite is turned into a local wedding ritual, minus the dragon.
Fast-forward to the present. The town's leader, a Duke, has arranged for his youngest daughter Mira (Maria Poezzhaeva) to marry Igor, the grandson of the dragon-slayer. Mira's father and sister think she's immature because she still likes fairytales and plays with toys. (I would argue that yes, Mira is immature, but not for those reasons.) Hoping that being a Duchess in a respectable marriage will make her more responsible, the wedding ritual commences. In honor of Igor's grandfather, the old song is included for a change. Unfortunately this summons a dragon, who flies off with Mira. Igor and some other men hop in a boat to give chase.
Mira finds herself on the dragon island at the bottom of a stone pit. In an adjacent pit is a young man without a name (Matvey Lykov), so she calls him Arman. Arman insists that there's no way to escape and that she'll be safe as long as she stays in the pit where the dragon can't reach her. But Mira is headstrong by nature and eventually climbs out. Confronting Arman, she finds out that Arman and the dragon are one and the same - the dragons can take human form (or vice-versa?). She's the first person he's met in all the years since his father was slain.
Arman's happy to have some company, but if she physically touches him, his skin and eyes get all glowy and he'll turn into a dragon, which he wants to avoid because the dragon would very likely kill her. They spend many days together and are gradually falling in love, but this is tenuous: Arman fears for Mira's safety, and Mira kind of wants to get home, or at least to have a backup escape plan.
Igor, meanwhile, can't reach the island because (according to Arman) it's surrounded by a magical fog that will only let you find your way if you truly love someone on the island. And because Igor and Mira had an arranged marriage, Igor's boat can't find the way. The other sailors are naturally pissed off at him, while Igor can't exactly admit his grandfather didn't pass on any useful information. None of them know why the quest isn't working. At the end of the film Mira chooses Arman instead of Igor.
Ok, thoughts: ...Ennh. I really liked the computer-graphic design of the dragon (wyvern), although his chest looked a bit boney. Well-animated! Not too many clear full-body shots, with some fleeting flight scenes. When on the island, inside, the lighting's a bit dark. Sadly, despite the film's 107-minute running time, the dragon only appears for about five minutes of it. Transformation: glowy eyes and veins, then an explosion of light and sparks.
When I heard afterwards that 85% of the film was CG, it explained a lot of the design of the cave/pit area, the island, the town, and it all felt pretty natural, so good job there. But I wondered, if they were going to put so much CG into the production, why not have more dragon? Probably because they wanted to focus on the Mira-Arman relationship. Arman's acting isn't anything special; I suspect what was more important was that he looked good with his shirt off.
Personally I had trouble with the film's pacing, it was hard to keep my attention going. Mira spends about one-fifth of the film in the depressing pit. Later, Arman gives exposition dumps, and that felt lazy. The gradual relationship building between them, that felt believable, if really slow. I had trouble liking Mira on a personal level but I sympathized with her situation and how she dealt with it. Film music - good. Visual design - good. There are some standout shots here and there, like Arman right after turning back into a human in one scene, with a wisp of the former dragon shape lingering. Or the fact that the entire island is the skeleton of a giant, draconic ancestor. That was cool.
On the downside, suspension of disbelief was a problem. Like dragon reproduction (which I'm not going to explain) - trust me that your brain will go "...What?". Or the magic fog. Or how chests from shipwrecks have washed up with useful stuff in them. Or the weird CG lemur...thing that lives on the island. The film could also use more humor. There is some, sprinkled here and there, but if there was more, maybe I wouldn't be judging it as harshly.
Mind you, it's very satisfying when another townsperson punches Igor, having had enough of him. The town's silent acceptance that seemed to say, "You know? If Mira thinks it's better to be carried away to her death by a dragon rather than marry Igor... We can live with that." Ok, that's more tragic than comedic, but at least the film occasionally managed to connect on an emotional level.
Still, very little in this film makes sense if you start thinking about it. For example: Arman was a young boy when his father was slain by Igor's grandfather. When Arman meets Mira, he's a young man, so dragons obviously age at a different rate. Therefore, the years that passed between Arman's birth (a result of the maiden's sacrifice) and his boyhood must have been really long. That's a huge amount of time for Igor's grandfather to be on his dragon-slaying quest. Not only that - Igor's grandfather shouldn't have been able to get through the fog, because his bride would have been dead for years.
Other issues: How far away is this island? Dragons seem to be able to fly to the town really fast. Yet the island's climate is quite temperate, while the town looks like it's perpetually in the middle of a Siberian winter. With a large supply of dried red berries. How does this song-summoning thing work anyhow? What exactly was Arman's initial plan with keeping Mira in the pit? There's also a lot of variation with how much control he has over turning into a dragon. Sometimes it's almost instantaneous. Other times he fights it off. Nor is it clear how much his human intellect can control the dragon's instincts, and we never learn anything useful about the dragon-to-human transformation process. Whatever the story needed, the writers didn't worry about consistency.
Would I recommend this film? Not especially. Positive online reviews seem to be from viewers who really focused on the budding Mira-Arman romance. I was watching the film with wider interests and it didn't work out for me. For dragon fans, if you don't mind wyverns (and that there's only one of them), originally I put together a supercut of just those scenes, and I was going to upload it to YouTube. Except then I saw someone had beat me to it. And then one of the big movie companies took it down, so... so much for that idea.
However! There are two clips right at the end of the movie that are worth watching, assuming they're not taken down too. The first clip, about two minutes long, is when the dragon is about to kill Mira, so she attempts to appeal to the dragon's buried human nature with the power of love. And the dragon has this funny "auuugh icky human kiss!" moment. Watch it on YouTube, jumping to around 1:11 in the video. The second clip is much shorter, about 30 seconds, of Mira and Arman going flying. Skip to the 4:00-mark.
If you want to go looking for the complete I Am Dragon, a DVD, Blu-Ray and video-on-demand version finally showed up on Amazon in June 2017. There are a lot of one-star reviews that say "The trailer was in English but this is subtitled I hate you Amazon". I bought the DVD and it's got both English dubbing and subtitles, decently done. If you go looking for a pirated copy, the English subtitles are terrible, plus there's the 2015/2017 distinction. The film is known under several variants: the original Russian title is Он - дракон , romanized to On - drakon , and I've seen it referred to as He-Dragon, and as He's a Dragon.
While writing this review, I remember going to see the film version of Eragon. Afterwards, I was chatting online with a dragon fan, and in making his decision to go see the film, he asked me, "Is there raar?" To this day I have no idea what that meant, what kind of raar, or how much he needed to be satisfyingly entertained. All I can say is that in I Am Dragon, the dragon does roar at a couple of points, and has the ability to breathe fire, but there probably isn't enough to make it worth your while.
This is the first in a series of reviews of recent Russian movies of potential furry interest.