Dragon Hunters delivers something that is all too rare in cinema today. It has the imagination to show images that we have never seen before. It is a visually rich and emotionally satisfying adventure movie that deserves to get noticed. It may not have the social/political subtext and potent sorrow of Wall-E. It may not have the crackerjack action scenes of Kung Fu Panda. But it does have a visual vocabulary all its own and there are moments in this film that deserve to be framed and hung on a wall.
A token amount of plot: Every thirty seasons, a mythical dragon 'the world-gobbler' returns to wreak death upon the lands of Lord Arnold. All of his subjects have fled in terror, leaving him alone with his orphaned niece, Zoe, who someday wishes to be a dragon hunter. Meanwhile, penny-ante monster-slayer Lian Chu (Forest Whitaker, doing his very best impression of John Goodman) and his scheming sidekick Gwizdo (voice over veteran Rob Paulsen) accidentally find themselves hired to slay said 'world gobbler'. So, completely unprepared for the task but bound by honor (and the promise of gold), Lian Chu and Gwizdo set out to do the impossible, little knowing that Zoe has snuck along to live out her dreams of dragon-slaying.
So the plot isn't anything out of the ordinary. But the tone makes a difference, as the stench of death and failure pervade their journey. While there is much comic relief from Gwizdo (he's the usual tiny, fast-talking sidekick), the mood is one of hopelessness and inevitability. When Gwizdo acts out in a cowardly fashion, it is not because he is cowardly, merely because he doesn't want to watch his best friend die in battle. The animation is more than good enough, but it should be noted how much of the character development is rendered in near silence, with subtle facial animation rather than over the top monologues or zany expressions. I'm also fond of a mid-film battle between our heroes and a wonderfully creative monster that is made entirely out of hundreds of red bats.
But what really stands out in this film is the world in which this battle takes place. The entire world is one of floating islands and various floating landmasses, where characters literally hop from one city to the next. This provides for countless gorgeous shots of our heroes standing in the clouds as the entire world literally revolves around them. And when they do get to the land of the World Gobbler... well, that would be telling, but it is a breathtaking image that I have never seen before. And when we do finally meet the World Gobbler, the film does not cop out. He is gigantic and terrifying, truly a creature of nightmares (there is a climactic moment of the dragon standing in front of fire that made me laugh out loud at its sheer visual perfection).
Dragon Hunters is France's official submission for 'Best Animated Film' at this year's Oscars. For what it's worth, it is easily one of the three best cartoons I have seen this year. Regardless of its awards-chasing, it is a visual treasure and a solid adventure fantasy for all ages. It is well worth seeking out and, should it be released on BluRay, well worth owning.