Nothing too groundbreaking, but fun and festive, with its heart in the right place.
Like a rather bland Christmas pudding from a second-rate supermarket, The Last Dragonslayer offers a fairly standard piece of festive televisual fare – albeit, one that is elevated somewhat by a rich cream of acting talent and CGI visuals.
Based upon the novel by Jasper Fforde, the world of the Last Dragonslayer is, at the very least, a fun place to be. A curious cross between a medieval township complete with mighty swords and bows, and the modern age of bustling streets and supermarkets, the stage is set for some impressive visuals. Whether its the borders of the dragon lands and their endless rolling, snow-capped hills, or the Dragonslayer HQ and its enormous draconian skeleton, there are very few occasions where there isn’t something interesting or amusing unfolding on screen. From pompous knight Sir Grifflon driving around atop a motorized castle, to a magical disturbance causing a biscuit tin to explosively overflow, there is a persistent sense of joy and light-hearted humour throughout the production, balanced elegantly with a somewhat-melancholic plot.
Jennifer Strange (played with an endearing vulnerability by newcomer Ellise Chappell), the teenage apprentice and adoptive daughter of magician and nature-lover The Great Zambini (Andrew Buchan), is drawn into a scheme to slay the last living dragon, after the mysterious disappearance of her mentor. We’re given a few titbits about the backstory of the world – mentions of an ancient peace treaty between humanity and dragons establishes what is essentially a neat reversion of the traditional fairy tale. Here, humanity – in particular villainous corporation StuffCo (yes, seriously) – are the true monsters, and there’s a nice conservationist beat to the tale of the antagonised dragon who just wants to live in peace in his section of the land. What unfolds is a deftly-handled coming of age story, as the young apprentice comes to terms with her fate, whilst battling multiple moustache-twirling villains along the way.
The story takes very few unexpected turns, although the casting of John Bradley (best known as the lovable Samwell Tarly in Game of Thrones) as one of the main villains is a curious but interesting one. The cast also boasts Richard E. Grant as the voice of the dragon, who is bizarrely-underused, and provides one of the few straight performances of the piece. Then again, this is clearly Jennifer’s tale – one could easily replace the dragon with a job interview, and the resulting angst would still be relatively the same. Over the course of an hour and a half, we get to know the Last Dragonslayer and feel the weight of her struggle, which makes the denouement of her tale all the more poignant.
However, a brief and emotional reunion with her mentor aside, the final third of the story falls mostly-flat, taking a turn towards the ludicrous in a story which hardly took itself seriously in the first place. As a pair of new dragons, born from the death of the supposed last of their kind, take to the skies in the final few moments, you can practically hear the villainous king give a pantomime sigh. He’s far from alone in his disappointment. In a single moment, any payoff from Jennifer’s emotional journey towards accepting her fate as a dragonslayer is rendered irrelevant. A final shot seems to indicate the likelihood of a follow-up based on the sequels to Fforde’s original book, but on the basis of the rushed conclusion and vaguely-sketched ideas about the fate of the magical world, its hard to say that The Last Dragonslayer has earned one.
That said, in a year that in both television and everyday life has been filled with countless instances of fist-clenching misery, there’s a great deal of affection to be awarded to a production that does that rarest of things – embracing a world of magic and mystery without nary a hint of cynicism. And, ultimately, isn’t that what Christmas is all about?
The Last Dragonslayer aired on Sky1 on Christmas Day.