Documenting Fantasy: The case of the animated mockumentary The Last Dragon (2004)

The Last Dragon (2004).

If animation and documentary make an anomalous couple, fantasy, animation and documentary make an extremely far-fetched threesome. Yet, in Justin Hardy’s mockumentary The Last Dragon (2004) they conjoin.[1] This TV movie purports to be a partially animated documentary that attests to the existence of one of fantasy’s iconic symbols: the dragon. More precisely, the film takes the form of “an evolutionary natural history “what if?”” (Foley in Murray 2005: 67) documentary that, similarly to Peter Jackson and Costa Botes’ staple live-action mockumentary, Forgotten Silver (1995), is composed of two interwoven stories. Indeed, on the one hand, The Last Dragon offers an account of the alleged discovery of two dragons’ skeletons in the Carpathian Mountains, thanks to which a paleontologist, Dr. Jack Tanner (Paul Hilton), can restore his reputation as a scientist. On the other hand, the film illustrates the struggles these imaginary creatures would have encountered throughout the decades as well as the changes that their behaviours and physiologies would have undergone between the Cretaceous period and the 15th century, when they would have become extinct. The former storyline is thus set in the present day, is shot almost entirely in live-action, and adopts the point of view of Dr. Tanner, who acts as a first-person narrator (Fig. 1). The latter storyline, instead, takes place in a distant past, is told by employing a combination of CGI animation and live-action backgrounds, and is characterized by an omniscient and didactic voiceover narration.[2]

Fig. 1 - A frame of  The Last Dragon  showing Dr. Tanner analyzing the recently rediscovered skeleton of a female dragon.

Fig. 1 - A frame of The Last Dragon showing Dr. Tanner analyzing the recently rediscovered skeleton of a female dragon.

By focusing in particular on The Last Dragon’s animated sequences, this post aims to show how they significantly contribute to the film’s overall operation of “normalizing” a creature like the dragon, that exists only in the imagination of mankind, as an extinct animal. In effect, overall The Last Dragon undertakes the opposite path of a fantasy feature. Indeed, if in the latter characters that purportedly belong to our planet are placed into imaginary universes imbued with magic and governed by rules other than those of the natural world (see Wells 2018), in this TV movie, instead, a fantastic figure is forged into the social world, by means of making up “rules” that confer plausibility to the fictitious idea of it having existed in our universe. With the help of Dr. Peter Hogarth, a biologist of the University of York who in 1979, together with Valery Clery, had illustrated the myths and legends surrounding these creatures in a book entitled Dragons, has produced a biological background for these imaginary beasts, so as to confer them a credibility as animals pertaining to our planet. That is, applying biological knowledge and referencing nature, a scientifically plausible biology and physiology, as well as a set of behaviours in line with those of real-life animals, such as mating, flying, feeding, etc., have been imagined for them (see Fig. 2).[3] Even the dragons’ most extraordinary skill, spitting fire, has been invented as a plausible scientific explanation. Thus, to put it in Vivian Sobchack’s terms, in order to confer credibility to the premise of the overall film being a documentary, aside from deploying aesthetics and a mode of narration proper of documentary filmmaking, “an existential connection to the temporal continuum that is, for spectators, their real historical world” has been sought (Sobchack 2004: 263-4).

Fig. 2 - The imaginary mating ritual of dragons, which was inspired by that of eagles.

Fig. 2 - The imaginary mating ritual of dragons, which was inspired by that of eagles.

The integration of these computer-animated creatures into live-action backgrounds also plays a key role in planting them into the historical world. Indeed, as such it has at least partially restored that indexical relationship between the film’s images and reality that we have come to consider a precondition for a film to be accepted as a documentary (see Honess Roe 2013; Sobchack 2004). Yet, paradoxically even the way in which animation is used in The Last Dragon encourages viewers to read it as a nonfiction product. The film’s animated sequences are created by the studio FrameStore, which at the time had under its belt not only work on fantasy films such as Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Chris Colombus, 2002) and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Alfonso Cuarón, 2004) – for which it has created the hippogriff – but also on the famed Walking with… animated documentary franchise, which comprises among others Walking with Dinosaurs (1999) and Walking with Beasts (2001). In making the animation for The Last Dragon, FrameStore has recouped and overturned the documentary approach developed for the latter to fictional ends, demonstrating as such how it is not a warranty of sincerity per se. More precisely, first of all, it has built on the idea of digital animation being “a valid means of representation for natural history and science television” that, as Annabelle Honess Roe (2013: 45) underlines, Walking with Dinosaurs has helped to establish. Actually, perhaps precisely to more strongly encourage the viewer to read this mockumentary as a documentary - despite the fact that it revolves around animated creatures of which no photographical evidence exists - an overlap between the film’s storyline and the aforementioned animated documentary series has been sought. Indeed, a direct linkage with the Walking with Dinosaurs narrative is established from the outset of the movie, by means of dating the dragons’ appearance in ‘the time of the dinosaurs’ (i.e. the Cretaceous period) and showing in the second sequence of the film a battle between a T-Rex and a prehistoric female dragon, who spits fire on the carnivorous predator to defend her offspring (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3 - The T-Rex threatens the life of a young dragon.

Fig. 3 - The T-Rex threatens the life of a young dragon.

Furthermore, the storyline depicting the purported evolution undergone throughout the centuries by dragons shares a number of characteristics with the Walking with Dinosaurs series. Like in the latter, a photorealistic style in The Last Dragon is adopted for the animation, and great attention has been paid to the scientific plausibility of these creatures’ physicality and biology, and a voice-of-God narration that “treats the images as if they were actual natural history footage filmed in the usual way” is employed (Honess Roe 2013: 51).[4] Moreover, as the Walking with Dinosaurs animated documentary series, this film too is constructed as a rise-and-fall journey of a species, offers intimate views of these creatures’ lives – showing for example their mating ritual or the brooding of the eggs – and focuses on just one or two major dragons of the period. In the case of The Last Dragon, this last choice deprives such creatures of the image of obstacle-in-the-journey-of-the-hero that mythology and fantasy narratives have created around them, in order to instead “normalize” them as animals that, as any other, operated by instinct, and became aggressive only when they felt threatened. Indeed, presenting the species through single dragons and their struggles to survive defuses the demonization of these creatures brought about by Western classical fantasy narratives (see Kirby 2013: 71-72) and encourages the viewer to adopt their point of view and empathize with them (Fig. 4). Producer Kevin Tao Mohs (in Murray, 2005: 69) explains “Dragons have been demonized throughout history, but if they were real animals they operated by instinct. They had to survive and they had reasons for doing what they did. When you watch our show – just like any great natural history show – you’re going to identify with an individual dragon. And hopefully you are going to be devastated when you find out the tragedy they experienced.”

Fig. 4 - The camera closely “follows” one of the dragon through which we are recounted this imaginary species.

Fig. 4 - The camera closely “follows” one of the dragon through which we are recounted this imaginary species.

Certainly, like in any mockumentary (see Formenti 2013), clues to its fictional nature can be tracked down in The Last Dragon too. We can find an unmistakable one already in its first sequence, when the voice-of-God narrator presents to the viewer what s/he is about to see as “the natural history of the most extraordinary creature that never existed”. Yet, in this case animation is not one of these clues. Indeed, not only it does not inhibit the reading of the film as a documentary, but it actually incites it by connecting it to a popular animated documentary series as Walking with Dinosaurs, so as to reframe dragons as extinct animals whose presence in folk histories, legends, and fantasy narratives from all over the world would be proof of their past existence.


Notes

[1] The film is also known as Dragons: A Fantasy Made Real and Dragons World: A Fantasy Made Real.

[2] In the UK version the narrator is Ian Holm, while in the US one is Patrick Stewart.

[3] For an in-depth account of the film’s genesis see Miller 2005.

[4] Paleolife illustrator John Sibbick was asked to draw the various dragons so to ensure they would have a credible appearance. From his drawings were then created the models that were used as the basis for the CGI animation.

References

Formenti, Cristina. Il mockumentary: la fiction si maschera da documentario (Milano: Mimesis, 2013).

Honess Roes, Annabelle. Animated Documentary (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

Kirby, Danielle. Fantasy and Belief: Alternative Religions, Popular Narratives, and Digital Cultures (Abingdon/New York: Routledge, 2013).

Miller, Bob. “Where Dragons Really Come From,” Animation World (2015): available at https://www.awn.com/animationworld/where-dragons-really-come (accessed December, 7 2018).

Murray, Will. “Here There Be Dragons,” Starlog 333 (April 2005): 66-69.

Sobchack, Vivian. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004).

Wells, Paul. “Wonderlands, Slumberlands, and Plunderlands. Considering the Animated Fantasy,” in Christopher Holliday and Alexander Sergeant, eds. Fantasy/Animation. Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres (London & New York: Routledge, 2018), 23-40.

Biography

Cristina Formenti is a Research Fellow and Adjunct Professor at University of Milan. In 2016, she received a PhD in Film Studies from the same university defending a thesis on the theory and history of animated documentary. She is author of the monograph Il mockumentary: la fiction si maschera da documentario (Mimesis 2013) and editor of Mariangela Melato tra cinema, teatro e televisione (Mimesis 2016). Currently she is working on a monograph on animated mockumentary, and another on the classical animated documentary.