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Snuff the Magic Dragon Review: Wonderfully animated beast soars, but is slain in the end by an army of misfit actors. Please, Mr. Casting Director, half a heart.

"Dragonheart" is a great movie illusion in search of a great movie.

Alas, no such mythical creature can be found, and so the wondrous Draco -- with his expressive face, witty eyebrows, ironic eyes and Sean Connery's crackly burr of a voice -- must alight in a story that's somewhat muddled and unsatisfying, as well as seriously miscast.

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Dennis Quaid as a knight? Excuse me. Dennis Quaid at night, in L.A. or N.Y. or Big D., yes, but as a knight, no, not really.

Quaid, bearded and bedraggled but hopelessly American, plays Bowen, he of the Old Code, meaning a believer in truth, justice and the Arthurian way. The time is the century or so after Camelot, that is the late 900s, and Bowen has been engaged to tutor young Einon, the prince and the man who will be king.

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But in a freak battlefield accident, Einon (Lee Oakes) is mortally wounded; his mother (the still stunning Julie Christie), who appears to be some kind of priestess of the cult of the dragon, takes her dying son before a scaly old beast in an ill-lit cave. In a moment of compassion, the beast miraculously cures the boy by giving him "half his heart." That links dragon and boy inexorably, and means one cannot die without the other. Since the dragon is one tough old hound dog, it means, practically, that the boy is immortal.

That's the good news. The bad news is, he turns out to be a rotter. The worst news is, he grows up to be David Thewlis.

Bad as the totally Yank Quaid is in his role, Thewlis, authentically British, is simply horrible.

King? I think not. He looks more like a mid-'60s British rocker on the morning after the worst booze-and-skag orgy of his life. Comb your hair, your majesty! I kept expecting a blowsy Marianne Faithful to totter in from the bedroom and collapse drunkenly on the divan.

Scrawny, delicate, with a sneering face and the oddest, wettest mouth, Thewlis just doesn't work; and when he springs into violent action, the dynamic moves of his stunt double seem utterly disconnected from his china-boned way of walking.

The casting blunders continue. Everybody's favorite spunky peasant girl Kara is played by Dina Myers of the "Beverly Hills, 90210" school of acting. She looks like she's still on "90210," and nowhere near "Camelot 984 A.D." Myers recalls the young Ann-Margret, a pneumaticized, lip-glossed professional American showgirl with a blast of professionally coiffed red hair; she's about as medieval as a wonder bra. You're thinking, "Viva Las Vegas!"

These sordid, inept and ill-matched humans swirl about in what feels like too much story, with too many abrupt mood and motive changes to keep track of. Quaid's Bowen, for example, bounces unconvincingly from perfect knight to cynical dragon slayer and back to perfect knight and rebel leader again, because the story is so full of fits and starts. It's never convincing emotionally and none of the actions seems to follow from its nominal causes, but rather out of obedience to an over-managed script.

In its final form, the movie actually bears some resemblance to that other heart movie, "Braveheart," coming to turn on the rebellion Bowen, Draco and Kara lead against evil King Einon of the Bad Teeth.

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But all of the foregoing may not matter.

The truth is Draco is the star, the show and the movie. The technological arts of filmmaking have progressed to the point where an animated object can actually be said to give a performance and can occupy the frame with live actors, seeming to occupy space and have weight and not wear an outline of blue electricity.

Draco seems to have been conceived as a big, faithful, talking dog with scales and wings. His postures are always noble-shepherd, with a proud head held above a recurved neck, just like Rin-Tin-Tin after saving the cavalry's bacon. Even when he flies, he seems more to bound than to glide, as if he's gobbling the ground up in big, loping gallops -- except there is no ground.

The action sequences involving him are all dynamic and involving, but the best thing in the movie is his guy-to-guy relationship with Bowen; they're like two old Marines down at the VFW remembering the terrible days on Iwo, which, they're beginning to suspect, were the best days of their lives. In fact, Quaid and the off-screen Connery have so much good chemistry together, one hopes some wise producer will team them in the flesh.

"Dragonheart" may recall for some the glories of "Dragon Slayer" of 1981, a truly magnificent movie. This one is cornier and cheesier and not nearly as pointed -- or as fun.

But when Connery's fire-breathing lizard-dog is toasting marshes or bad knights, it's a blast and it moves an otherwise two-star outing up to the most tentative three stars I've ever given.

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Pub Date: 5/31/96


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