A Brief History of Great Movie Dragons

From Toothless to Maleficent to The Eborsisk, we paint the raddest van mural of all time.

How To Train Your Dragon 3
Universal Pictures

Dragons are like any other fandom. Wars are waged over favorites, and everyone has a particular set of guidelines they follow in selecting said favorite. We could argue wingspan and the perfect mix-and-match combination of animal ingredients all day long, but just as fanboys get lost in the mathematics behind Batman pulverizing Superman in Dawn of Justice while their emotion ultimately motivates their fervor, dragon preference is based on your first-love experience. Which beast first caught your eye? I’m a European dragon man myself, but I’m not necessarily opposed to the Ancient Greek, Chinese, or Middle Eastern variety.

With How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World swooping into theaters this past weekend, there is an excuse to round up my favorite batch of cinematic serpents (I’m sticking to movies, so no White Walker entranced Viserion. Sorry, not sorry, we know that particular son of Daenerys would reign supreme). A group of domesticated dragons is typically referred to as a Weyr of Dragons, while a group of wild dragons is called a Thunder of Dragons. For my purposes, I’m calling these vicious killers a Murder of Dragons like one would call a gathering of crows cuz it sounds metal as hell and absolutely worthy of a wannabe Frank Frazetta mural painted on the side of a van.

After a quick Wikipedia search, I am told that the reason dragons appear across a variety of mythologies from various cultures is due to humanity’s innate fear of snakes and the dark caverns in which they dwell. When our earliest ancestors huddled around the campfire, and they needed a great big bad for their hero to clash against, it was simply a storyteller’s instinct that slapped bat wings upon a gargantuan sidewinder. The dragon is instant nightmare fuel. No fifty winks for the caveman tonight.

Maleficent

That was certainly the case after my first encounter with such a punishingly, terrifying creature. Strapped with the enchanted Sword of Truth as well as the Shield of Virtue, Prince Phillip rides into battle against the wicked Maleficent, Mistress of Evil. Determined to keep the boy away from the lips of Sleeping Beauty, the villainous fairy transforms herself into a purple bellied dragon that spits green flame at a temperature that matches her boiling fury. The beast fills the frame, but its massive size does not deter young Phillip. He flings the Sword of Truth directly into the heart of Maleficent; evil forever vanquished. Until the live-action re-imagining, anyway.

Walt Disney Studios animator Eric Cleworth brought the behemoth to life using rattlesnakes as a visual guide while sound man Jim Macdonald referenced genuine US Army flamethrowers to deliver her raging indigestion. Mission accomplished, fellas. I don’t think I slept for a week after that original VHS-watch of Maleficent. I saw her bright, fiery eyes within every dark shadow faced. Under the bed, behind the closet door, and outside my bedroom window – she waited.

The Maleficent design may be basic, but it’s also primeval. She slithers straight into your subconscious and takes root. Once Maleficent sinks her claws into your noggin there is no shaking her loose. She’s a helluva demon to unleash upon a child.

The Eborsisk

From one horrifying kiddie encounter to another. The Eborsisk is a two-headed slug of a dragon, and an accidental creation spawned by the fumbling magician Willow after he strikes down a troll using Cherlindrea’s magic wand. The insignificant wretch tumbles into the castle moat where he bubbles to a boil; eventually emerging as the puss-ugly titan. To stare into its four beady red eyes perched above its two rancid snouts is to know true mental nausea. A single still from this scene is enough to give me the cold sweats.

During the Battle of Tir Asleen, The Eborsisk rages fire amongst both warring parties. Willow’s chivalrous pal Madmartigan propels himself atop one of the heads and toothpicks its jaws shut with his blade. Unable to expel its fiery breath, The Eborsisk explodes in a gooey and meaty cloud. More uncontrollable goosebumps ripple down my arms.

Based on discarded Rancor designs that Ralph McQuarrie concocted for Return of the Jedi, The Eborsisk moniker is a not-so-subtle jab from producer George Lucas to Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, the mavens of “Two Thumbs Up/Down” criticism. They responded with equal disdain by slapping a negative review on Willow and naming it one of the worst of 1988. Boo, I say. At the very least, you cannot deny this go-motion creation from ILM masterminds Phil Tippett and Randy Dutra as being a truly demented and psychically scarring fabrication worthy of nuzzling next to my Maleficent nightmares.

Toothless

If you’re looking to keep a couple of terrors like Maleficent and The Eborsisk contained on your 80s van mural, honestly, Toothless the Night Fury from How to Train Your Dragon is a pretty reliable ally. His wide green eyes and retractable teeth give him that friendly, adorable quality that ignites an uncontrollable urge to cuddle from the audience (thank goodness there are a plethora of plushies to purchase), but as we’ve seen throughout the entire trilogy, the little guy is also quite the scrapper.

Deemed the “unholy offspring of lightning and death itself” by those that require moral righteousness to justify the wholesale slaughter of a species, Toothless represents humanity’s classic excuse to hate which we fear or do not understand. If not for young Hiccup and his empathic drive to connect with the dragon he nearly killed as a test of manhood, the endless blood war between both species would have continued into infinity. Toothless and Hiccup are the bridge we should all follow. We’re not all that different from dragons…or cows for that matter. Put. The. Burger. Down.

This little guy sprung forth from the brain of Simon Otto, the Head of Character Animation at Dreamworks Animation, and his team of designers. To create Toothless they crammed a whole mess load of animals into one undeniably endearing beastie, squishing black panther traits together with that of a bat, snake, moray eel, cat, dog, horse, and probably a whole mess load more. The result equals maximum cuteness with an electric bite.

King Ghidorah

Any good van mural needs a heavy hitter, a Hulk to loom over the airbrushed landscape. On your average team of avenging badasses, Maleficent or The Eborsisk might be adequate, but for this truly nasty murder of dragons, we’re gonna need royal blood. All hail King Ghidorah!

Don’t worry too much about his convoluted, backtracking origin story. Maybe he’s a remote-controlled Astro-monster from Planet X, or maybe he’s a mash-up of cuddly mutants from the future. Whatever the case, this kaiju cuts a mean profile with his three erratically swerving heads, their equally erratic radiating beams of yellow lightning, and his absurdly girthy bat wings.

By the mid60s, China mastered the atom, arming the nation with a nuclear arsenal. Rumors swarmed around King Ghidorah’s creation, claiming that Ishirō Honda meant for this latest threat to Tokyo to symbolize China’s aggression. The father of Godzilla denied such accusations, stating emphatically that King Ghidorah was producer Tomoyuki Tanaka’s interpretation of the legendary eight-headed, eight-tailed Japanese dragon Yamata no Orochi. They couldn’t afford eight heads, so three would have to do.

Enter The Dragon

The final member of my murder of dragons is the Hiccup of the mural. Bruce Lee grew up with a number of nicknames. Some mocked his size by labeling him Sai Fon or “Little Phoenix.” Others repelled in wonder at his energy by dubbing him Mo Si Ting (“Never Sits Still”). But as he hopped around from stage to stage as a child, he performed under the name Lee Siu Loong, “Little Dragon Lee.” That handle quickly morphed into “Little Dragon” then “Dragon Lee” and eventually just “The Dragon.”

He does not come equipped with the enormous wingspan or the firebreathing. Sure, true, but he has that dragon heart (no, not that movie, hush). At 7:12 AM on November 27, 1940, Bruce Lee’s birth represented both the hour and year of The Dragon, and the Chinese zodiac tradition deemed such an arrival to be a cosmic omen of strength. He lived up to this power.

Bruce Lee made it his life goal to master his self through the martial arts, and he believed that training others (no matter their race or gender) to do the same would bring harmony to the planet. Under the heavens, there is but one family. While films like The Way of the Dragon and Enter the Dragon carry on his name to his day, it’s his writings that reveal a true champion of spirit. Only such a man could tame this murder of dragons. Also, he strikes the dopest poses and probably exists on several hundred van murals already.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.