When one considers the long history of home cinema, including Laser Disc, VHS, DVD and now BluRay, one must also consider the advent of the “demo disc”, a film with a specific soundtrack used to demonstrate the power and clarity of your home cinema. You’d show off to friends by putting in the Pod Race from The Phantom Menace, the Lobby sequence from The Matrix, or the Harrier jet scene at the end of True Lies, in order to have folks jaws drop at just how cool your surround sound speakers were when you cranked it up. It’s a first world problem, of course, not having a decent home cinema setup, but the gradual reduction in cost to the average consumer has allowed more folks to have better systems with which to watch movies.
I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the films I use to calibrate my home cinema each time I need to set it up (moving’s a pain, don’tcha know!); The dts DVD of The Haunting (terrible film, but an amazing soundtrack), Godzilla (ditto), Fellowship Of The Ring, more recently Transformers: Revenge Of the Fallen, and Dragonheart. Alongside Twister, Dragonheart remains a pivotal film for my cinematic experiences: I remember sitting in the cinema, watching it in bowel-trembling dts, and it seemed to me that somebody up in the projection booth had upped the bass quite a bit. The rumbling and sheer power of the soundtrack to Dragonheart was, and still is, seared into my memory.
The film, upon reflection, isn’t really that good. It’s a period film set in England, starring two American actors (Dennis Quaid and Dina Meyer) who steadfastly refused to modify their accents, effectively bringing the USA into Europe several centuries too early. It’s the first major film in which one character is nearly entirely a digital creation; the titular dragon known as Draco, and voiced by Sean Connery. It featured more CGI per minute than Jurassic Park, which came out some 3 years prior, in 1993. It also had one of the most fabulous uses of surround sound I’d heard to that point: a single scene in which Draco, having become the accomplice to Quaid’s renegade knight swindling good folks out of their hard-earned, sweeps around the soundfield having a conversation with the man on horseback. Unlike previous surround tracks I’d heard to that point, which primarily used the rear channels for ambiance and minor directional effects, this was the first film I’d heard where the central action sound moves into the back of the soundfield – Draco’s wingbeats and deep voice throb from every channel as he flies about the sky; it was the moment during which I realized just how surround sound could – and should – be used. The directionality was sublime, and although this kind of thing has been surpassed in recent decades, at the time it was a revelation.
Of course, obtaining the eventual VHS copy of this film (DVD was in its infancy as a format, and Laserdisc was out of my price range) and running it through my Pro Logic receiver (yeah, I know, that sounds so dodgy, but I was young and had no money) to try and replicate that feeling of aural immersion left me disappointed. Of course a stereo soundtrack on VHS wouldn’t do the job well enough, but it was enough at the time. The eventual DVD version, of which there was both a Dolby 5.1 edition released here in Australia and the dts 5.1 edition from the USA, came to me in the former instead of the latter – at the time, my updated 5.1 receiver couldn’t process dts (dude, it’s a lack of f***ing money, okay!) – and it became one of my most played demo discs to that point. By the time I snagged myself a receiver capable of delivering the dts soundtracks on DVD, the US dts version was out of print, and I failed to locate it on eBay or the seconds stores.
Which brings us to today – the BluRay release of Dragonheart was, as you’d expect, a “must own” for me, considering my fascination and passion for the film and its soundtrack. The disc, which houses the dts track I’d coveted for nearly a decade or more, was finally mine. My memory of the picture quality on Dragonheart was a muddled mess of worn VHS and compression-issue-degraded DVD issues, so to finally see Dragonheart in 1080p and master audio was a dream come true. The films vintage meant it was never going to get the restorative efforts more famous films from Universal have received, but anything had to be better than the terrible DVD transfer it had been afforded originally (at least, here in Australia).
Universal’s presentation of Dragonheart’s soft-focus picture is solid, but not excellent. The print they’ve sourced for this BluRay is indeed clean, but the films lack of crisp focus in distance shots, as well as a lack of clarity on subtle features from time to time indicates perhaps less about Universal’s telecine policies and more about the age and technical limitations of the film Rob Cohen shot the film with. The frame is closer to the original 2.40:1 aspect I originally saw in the cinema, unlike the R4 DVD version which seemed cropped to a user-friendly 2.30:1. Banding, ringing or aliasing – all issues associated with compression – are invisible to my eye, meaning that this image represents the absolute quality allowed by the print used to develop this version. Color reproduction is excellent, and flesh tones have that pinky hue we associate with living people; the films picture presentation does tend towards the soft, nearly unfocussed kind at times, and it’s a distraction the film desperately didn’t need. It’s not an amazingly powerful film, emotionally speaking, so any negative in either picture or audio would assist in bringing down its overall score. Don’t get me wrong, this is a vastly superior video replication than any DVD version I’ve seen, yet in comparison to other films of this vintage (1996) I’ve seen better on Blu.
On the audio front, the disc is technically proficient in every regard. The 5.1 mix in dts-MA is powerful, sonically clear and as powerful as I remember it being. Bass extension on the dts track is far superior to the Dolby version I knew for so long, and channel clarity and separation is indeed of an extremely high quality. Rear channel use – particularly that scene with Draco swooping about the soundfield – is razor sharp and full blooded. Dialogue is precise and clear, never becoming lost in the more action-oriented sequences. Randy Edelman’s now-iconic score soars in 5.1, and has an added heft that Dolby simply couldn’t muster. When the action is engaged, the soundtrack leaps into life, with the clank of swords, the roar of fire and the thunderous crack of Draco swooping into attack all sounding as precise and clear as you’d expect. As a demo disc, I’m afraid to say that Dragonheart’s been overrun by more modern digital technology, and even the memorable swooping sequence I referred to earlier doesn’t quite have the same heart-pounding realism as, say, Terminator: Salvation or Transformers: Dark Of The Moon, but as a throwback to the last millennium’s dawn of digital technology, Dragonheart’s a fascinating example of the burgeoning imagination of Hollywood sound design.
As far as extra features go, Dragonheart has been left pretty threadbare in terms of quality. A fairly uneventful and generic “making of” feature is included, as is Rob Cohen’s original directors commentary (from the days of DVD) and an insubstantial “outtakes” segment. Where’s a more recent reflection on the film’s advancement of digital effects? A reunion with the cast to chat about making the movie? Nope? Nothing new under this sun. A pity, then, because for what Dragonheart gave to cinema in terms of digital effects, you’d think Universal would give a little bit more back to the fans.
As a technical accomplishment, Dragonheart was astonishing to audiences at the time who were still coming to grips with the advent of digital effects post-Jurassic Park. Draco, the full fledged CGI character on screen for the majority of this film, is a wonder of the age, even if his animation is now somewhat anachronistic by modern standards – he just looks digital. The films’ storyline is fairly uneven in its execution, although Quaid, Meyer and co-star David Thewlis work really hard to keep it afloat: in the end, though, the film itself hangs on the visual effects (and to a degree Edelman’s wonderful score), and they are wonderful to watch. The BluRay, however, is a little bit of a disappointment: the picture quality is less than stellar even for a film only a decade and a half old, and the sound mix is a rocking good time, even though it’s obviously been surpassed by time. The bonus features are a complete let-down, so for fans of the film looking to upgrade from DVD, I’d say do so with the reservations that all you’ll really notice is a better soundtrack mix and a vastly superior – albeit not perfect – picture.