Somebody stop that guy from saying, “The dragon! The dragon!”
Loosely based Wagner’s four-opera cycle The Ring of the Nibelung, which itself was based on a series of ancient ballads, this made-for-TV take on the classic story attempts to combine rollicking fantasy adventure thrills with high drama.
Siegfried (Benno Furmann, The Order) is a young blacksmith living a quiet life in the kingdom of Burgund. One day, a meteorite falls from the sky. Believing it to be a sign from the gods, Siegfried runs off to investigate. Also investigating the crash is the visiting Icelandic queen, Brunhilde (Kristanna Loken, Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines). She quickly challenges Siegfried to a fight, proudly announcing that she’s never been defeated in combat by a man. Siegfried’s got some mad sword fighting skills, though, and he manages to wrestle her to the ground. This leads to a night of passionate sex, in which the two declare their eternal love for each other. Siegfried promises to journey to Iceland someday, to marry her and take his place by her side as her king.
Shortly afterward, a deadly dragon appears, destroying a bunch of quaint countryside villages. Siegfried, good-natured hero that he is, takes it upon himself to slay the beast. During their fight, some of the dragon’s blood spills onto one of Siegfried’s wounds. Their blood mixes, giving Siegfried supernatural strength and invulnerability. Slaying the dragon also makes Siegfried the new owner of the dragon’s vast treasure. This newfound wealth makes him a sudden best friend of Burgund’s King Gunther (Samuel West, Van Helsing). When the twin kings from the neighboring nation of Xanten threatens to invade and claim the dragon’s gold for themselves, Siegfried flashes back to his repressed childhood memories and discovers he is in fact the long-lost heir to the Xanten throne. Using his dragon-y powers, he slays the twins and becomes Xanten’s king.
Sensing an opportunity, Gunther and his super-sneaky court advisor Hagen (Julian Sands, Arachnophobia) come up with a plan. Thanks to an especially powerful love potion, Siegfried instantly forgets Brunhilde and falls madly in love with Gunther’s sister, Princess Kriemhild (Alicia Witt, Urban Legend). So just imagine how complicated things get when the ever-ambitious Gunther decides to pursue a marriage with Brunhilde, with Siegfried’s help, further uniting their kingdoms. Brunhilde’s fiery heart is broken to see Siegfried in the arms of another woman. With all the characters now in place, it’s time for secrets to be revealed, tensions to rise, and political scheming to get way out of hand.
Dark Kingdom: The Dragon King has its high points, but overall, this is a case of “too much plot.” Siegfried’s childhood, his romantic encounter with Brunhilde, his battle with the dragon, and his rise to power as king are all rushed through during the first third of the movie. It’s a whirlwind of activity that doesn’t allow for a lot of breathing room. A fast pace is one thing, especially when it comes to fantasy adventure heroics, but in this case, leaping from one plot point the next in such a rapid manner leaves little room for any character development.
For example, immediately after Siegfried discovers the dragon’s gigantic stash of gold, a bunch of ghosts show up and warn him that the treasure is cursed, and it will eventually lead to his downfall. Siegfried casually dismisses their concerns, saying, “I don’t believe in curses.” To which the audience at home responds, “Dude, you just slew a dragon and you’re talking to a ghost. Start believing.” There’s really no character-based reason for Siegfried to act this way, instead, he only does this because the plot dictates that the treasure will eventually lead to trouble. Consider a similar scene in which Siegfried confronts a troll-like man living in the forest. The man offers Siegfried a gift of a magical helmet that can make Siegfried look like anyone. Again, this scene is a quick and easy shortcut to set up something that will pay off later, revealing nothing about Siegfried’s motivation or personality.
After Siegfried rises to power and Brunhilde reenters the story, the pace thankfully slows down, and there is more interaction between the characters. Now, I like sword fights and dragons as much as the next guy, but the personal relationships are the strong point this time around. First, we have Brunhilde’s broken heart, seeing the man she loves in the arms of a hot redhead, while she’s committed to a political marriage with a man she feels is not good enough for her. Hagen, Gunther and Kriemhild, meanwhile, turn Siegfried from an unstoppable hero into their puppet. It’s all about intrigue and heartbreak, and even though you can see where it’s going, it’s grand entertainment to see it all play out.
The producers and director Uli Edel (Purgatory) has assembled a fitting cast here. Kristanna Loken as a woman warrior? Nice. Alicia Witt as a princess? Great. Julian Sands as a sneaky, manipulative bastard? Perfect. Benno Furmann’s English accent is perhaps slightly off, but he jumps into the role with confidence, and he can swing around a sword with gusto. The actors, however, have their good moments and their not-so-good moments. In some scenes, they pour great amounts of emotion into their roles, but at other times, everyone seems unusually stiff. It’s hit-or-miss acting across the board.
How’s the action, you wonder? The highlights are Siegfried’s fight with the dragon, his two-against-one duel with the Xanten twin kings, and an elaborate axe fight with Brunhilde on a frozen river bank. The fight choreography isn’t overly flashy in a Matrix kind of way, but it’s exciting enough. Likewise, the CGI dragon looks good enough that I wanted to see it outside of its cave and flying around, but budgets were limited, I know.
Also, even though this is the dark ages, everyone’s hair looks great.
Picture quality is good, with sharp details and bright, vivid colors. The 5.1 English track is similarly solid, with booming sound effects and a rich score. Five featurettes make up the meat of the extras, which can be watched at once with a handy “play all” button. These cover the origins of the script, all the way through casting, production, and visual effects. The cast and crew seem a little too eager to compliment one another, but other elements of the featurettes are interesting, including a look at just how much of the movie (almost all of it) was filmed against a blue screen.
It’s a little less Tolkien and a little more Aaron Spelling. But this time around, that’s not such a bad thing. The “soap opera” elements of Dark Kingdom are the reason to give this one a try, with some sword fights and a dragon thrown in to keep things interesting.