Chief Justice Michael Stailey has never met a dragon he didn't like, until now.
The heroes of Krynn take a stand against evil…
…while the rest of us run screaming from our television sets. It's been a long time since I've come across a film this bad—animated or live-action.
As a child of the '70s and '80s, I am well aware of TSR's Dungeons & Dragons, and respect the passion its fans have for the gaming, novels, and merchandising it has inspired. Dragonlance has been a wildly successful and revered component of this universe, thanks to the rich and detailed storytelling of Tracy Hickman and Margaret Weiss. Dragons of Autumn Twilight, upon which this first direct-to-DVD film is based, was originally published in 1984 and launched the Dragonlance Chronicles, a three book series. This was followed up by Dragonlance Legends (Volumes 1-3), The Second Generation (Volume 1-2), and War of the Souls (Volumes 1-3), all from the creative minds of Hickman and Weiss. Other authors have contributed to the universe as well, but the first six novels are what most consider its foundation and their creators its authoritative storytellers. Many argue the books are far too reminiscent of Tolkien's Middle Earth, but then what fantasy tales of the time were not influenced by those profound novels?
The Readers Digest version of Autumn Twilight is this: There was a time when the universe was in balance. The Gods of Light protected the people of Krynn from the evil that sought to overtake them. However, as those same people became arrogant, ungrateful, and grew so bold as to demand the Gods serve them instead of the other way around, they quickly found themselves alone, without protection, and forced to fend for themselves. Of course, when the forces of Takhisis, the once vanquished Queen of Darkness, got wind of their vulnerability, plans were made to ensure that evil would rise again. Under the leadership of High Lord Verminaard, this dark army of Draconians, Goblins, and Orcs will exploit the divisions between Krynn races and conquer their world once and for all. It's up to a rag tag band of former friends to welcome in new allies, uncover the lost healing magic of the Gods, and fight back Takhisis' forces.
As you can imagine, with a wealth of source material to draw from, an aspiring producer would surely want to snatch up the rights for development. Unfortunately, when good material falls into the wrong hands, the results can be disastrous. Director Will Meugniot, despite having received rave reviews for Marvel's recent Ultimate Avengers 2, returns to his Filmation roots and not in a good way. Produced by Toonz Animation India, South Asia's largest and self-proclaimed "most admired" animation studio, Dragons of Autumn Twilight is an absolute mess. This mix of traditional 2D animation for principal characters and backgrounds does not mesh at all with the 3D animation used to create the various Dragons, Draconians, and other evil creatures. It's like watching two different movies mashed together (or a really bad video game). The overall look is reminiscent of the worst animation '80s and '90s television had to offer—stilted character movement, mismatched voice and mouth synching, limited and uneven shading, overused and out of place lighting flares, intense digital coloring, and transitions between scenes that look and act like commercial breaks combine to accentuate the film's far too many design flaws. The Draconian monk scene (31:20) alone is enough to illustrate how ineffectual these choices are. I'm not sure what went wrong, but I'm surprised Paramount allowed this to be released as is.
However, the blame does not rest solely with the animators. George Strayton's (Hercules, Xena) adaptation of the original 400+ page novel puts the entire tale on fast forward. Granted, it's never easy to condense an epic story into a 90-minute film. Steve Kloves has done an amazing job with the Harry Potter series (except for Order of the Phoenix which he did not write), but he's the gifted exception and not the rule. Strayton's script suffers from heavy upfront exposition, choppy dialogue, missing fan favorite characters and set pieces, and dilution of Hickman and Weiss' detail. Worst of all, it's difficult to care about any of these characters and their respective fates, and that's the death knell of storytelling.
There are two things that work though. First, an impressive voice cast lead by Kiefer Sutherland (24), Michael Rosenbaum (Smallville), Lucy Lawless (Battlestar Galactica), and Michelle Trachtenberg (Buffy), make the most of Strayton's script, delivering their lines with as much authenticity as they can muster. This is further enhanced by Karl Preusser's underscore, which adds a sense of adventure and depth of emotion undeserving of the film's otherwise amateurish nature. Unfortunately, neither are able to save the film from critical derision.
If you're looking for bonus materials to enhance the experience, you're out of luck. No featurettes, no interviews, no historical retrospectives, just a couple of quick looks at character design and test animation. Unimpressive for a property so deep in source material.
There will undoubtedly be a segment of the fan base that will overlook these flaws and thrill to seeing Dragons of Autumn Twilight brought to life. To them, I mean no disrespect, as they are the audience who will keep this film franchise moving forward. One can only hope that future installments, if there are to be any, will overcome these poor choices and inconsistencies.
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