There's nothing more reputable in the realm of fantasy and myth than the winged reptilian legends we like to call dragons. These fictional creatures rival all other mythical beasts simply for their enduring legacy. The idea of a dragon dates as far back as 1500 BCE with an ancient Indian text known as the Rig Veda telling tales of the dragon Vrtra. According to legend, the god Indra killed this great dragon in an effort to release waters from the skies (rain). Since then, dragons have often been depicted throughout many cultures as great monstrous serpents who either spelled trouble or good fortune for the ancient civilized populations and their deities (via Google Arts and Culture).
Of course, nowadays, we know better. Dragons and other fictional beasts were likely a simple lack of understanding by ancient peoples of the fossilized remains of dinosaurs or the unknown creatures that populated oceans.
Despite the mystical creatures being a figment of our ancestors' imaginations, dragons would endure through fictional works of fantasy. In the modern age, it only makes sense that fairy tales made their way to the big screen for the entertainment of the masses. In cinema, it's easy to use dragons as fearsome creatures who rule violently with fire and blood (see what we did there, George R. R. Martin fans?). But they've also been elevated beyond the vicious carnivore motif into something a bit more magical, like Falkor from "The Neverending Story." Because they aren't real, dragons aren't beholden to a certain way of being. They can be Pete's best friend, or they can lay waste to King's Landing. With that said, let's dive into the best live-action incarnations of these popular creatures, ranking them from the least endearing to the most memorable.
This Disney-produced live-action remake of the 1977 original tells the tale of a boy and his dragon. A young lad by the name of Pete Healy (portrayed by Levi Alexander as a 5-year-old and Oakes Fegley as an 11-year-old) is suddenly orphaned after his parents are killed in a car accident. While Pete survives the incident, he's chased in the forest by hungry wolves. Thankfully, a big furry green dragon is around the corner to protect the young boy from the predators. He names the beast Elliot. The two form an inseparable bond, and Pete endeavors to keep the dragon a secret for Elliot's own safety. Of course, this story wouldn't have any stakes if there truly wasn't a threat to the dragon's well-being. Hunters attempt to capture the mythical creature, causing us to shake our fists at the screen.
The original 1977 film told a similar story; however, the dragon was simply a cartoon living in the real world. Obviously, the original "Pete's Dragon" pre-dated CGI, so cartoon-style animation was the next best option aside from practical effects that could get overly technical and expensive. Additionally, that film was known for its whimsy and musical numbers. The 2016 remake sheds the "Disney-fied" aspect of the original in favor of a more real-world approach. Even still, Elliot isn't threatening in appearance and looks like a majestic and peaceful animal with his furry coat and soft gaze. It's a striking difference from some of the most fiercely realized dragons in cinematic history.
The Marvel Cinematic Universe continually plunges forward deeper into the pantheon of comic book heroes. "Shang-Chi" may have been one of the more obscure characters to receive a film adaptation, but the film proved to be fruitful for Marvel and Disney — as all properties seem to be that carry the Marvel brand these days. Regardless, the film tells the story of Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), a man who is destined to return to his home of Ta Lo and defend it from the darkness that threatens it. But who would've ever guessed that his own father, Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), would be the catalyst in bringing forth an ancient evil dubbed the Dweller-in-Darkness? The mystical village of Ta Lo is home to a myriad of mythological creatures of Chinese legend. There is even a tale of a heroic dragon called the Great Protector who saved the village from certain doom by sealing a gate to the Dweller's world, preventing it from threatening Ta Lo.
In the climactic finale of the film, the Great Protector reveals itself to Shang-Chi and aids him in the fight against the Dweller and its soul-eaters. By design, the dragon is rather unique as far as cinematic dragons are concerned. The Great Protector is distinctly a serpent-like, Chinese dragon that slithers through the air with small arms and legs, and pronounced colorful scales. It's a beautiful on-screen realization that hearkens back to ancient Chinese legends and culture.
Gone are the days of consistent practical effects in cinema. The era of CGI began to emerge in the '80s ushering in a brand-new way to make movies. Still, the stop-motion animations and tangible monstrous effects from the '60s, '70s, and early '80s were endearing and a hallmark of the times. Even though our movies are much cleaner these days as far as effects are concerned, there's a certain charm that comes along with a person wearing a grotesque body suit. In the 1981 film "Dragonslayer," the horrific monster terrorizing civilization wasn't made from stop-motion or a person wearing a simple body suit. Instead, the creature was constructed as a giant puppet that was controlled by a team of professionals (via Tom Spina Designs).
Vermithrax Pejorative is a fearsome creature. The dragon is nearly four centuries old, and is wreaking havoc in a kingdom called Urland. The king staves off further attacks from the dragon by offering it a periodic sacrifice of a virgin girl who is selected at random. Being a man who takes advantage of his position, the king often takes bribes and bargains from families who have daughters up for selection in the sacrificial lottery. Despite attempts to appease Vermithrax, a beast that wantonly causes destruction and mayhem will only return to his old ways. This dragon must not be brought down by the haughty, arrogant king, but by a humble sorcerer's apprentice, Galen (Peter MacNicol). The intrepid young lad embarks on a journey to do just that. To this day, "Dragonslayer" is revered as a fantasy classic.
This 2002 blockbuster featured the likes of Christian Bale, Gerard Butler, and Matthew McConaughey in a clash against an apocalyptic army of dragons. The beginning of the film began in modern times, which at the point of the film's release was 2002. Underground construction in London led to a cave where a massive dragon awakens and escapes into the world. Quinn Abercromby (Christian Bale) witnessed this dragon emerge as a child. His mother was killed during the event. Other dragons emerge from hibernation and scientists now learn that these beasts were responsible for the destruction of the dinosaurs. The ash blotted out the sun and ushered in the first Ice age. Dragons then returned beneath the Earth's crust to hibernate. Now, they're enacting the extinction of mankind across the globe.
The film made back its budget, but didn't manage to draw in a massive haul at the box office (via Box Office Mojo). Still, years later, the film received notoriety as a cult classic. Viewers have been drawn to its flashy action-oriented narrative featuring an onslaught of CGI dragons. As far as our dragon ranking is concerned, the big lone male featured in the beginning and end of the film is what dragon-loving fans are here for. This beast is the only male in the entire population of dragons and he is a big boy. As such, the future of his species relies solely on him to mate with the females and continue to produce progeny. The climactic battle in the film's third act sees the main characters mounting an attack against the male in an attempt to end the entire species. But the beast doesn't go down with a fight.
You had to know that "Game of Thrones" dragons would make this list. And it won't stop here with Viserion, either. By this point, we all know about Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), the Mother of Dragons. She went from being sold as a subservient maiden by her own brother, to being a revered leader destined for the Iron Throne. And let's be honest, it was mostly thanks to her dragons whom she affectionately sees as her own children. These beasts are not to be trifled with as we all know. Their destructive power is made known in the penultimate episode of the entire series.
Viserion is named after Dany's older brother, Viserys. Though, why she even gave her late brother that honor after what he did to her is anyone's guess. Still, the dragon is brilliantly designed with golden scales and reddish wings. But the real reason he even made this list is not because of what he was like in life, but what he became in death. The Night King kills Viserion and resurrects the beast as part of his own undead army. Only this is the first time we ever witness an undead dragon with an icy glare and blue fire. Viserion poses a real threat for the good people of Westeros showing that he has the chops to destroy the wall. While he may have been a faithful pet in life, his undead master claimed that loyalty for himself with the dragon's brutal murder.
We're already knee deep in Westerosi lore once again with the advent of the "Game of Thrones" spin-off, "House of the Dragon." The prequel series entreats us to a look at the ancestors of the Dragon Queen who would eventually lay waste to King's Landing in a murderous rage. House Targaryen is large and in charge. King Viserys (Paddy Considine) occupies the Iron Throne and his daughter, Rhaenyra (portrayed by Milly Alcock as a young girl and Emma D'Arcy as an adult), has been named as his heir. That's a bit of an agitation for the king's brother, Daemon (Matt Smith). Though he seems chaotic and potentially bloodthirsty, it's impossible to know Daemon's eventual grand plans.
Each Targaryen royal is paired with a dragon at birth. Caraxes belongs to Daemon. In "Fire and Blood" lore, written by George R. R. Martin and which "House of Dragons" is based upon, Caraxes is known as the Blood Wyrm. He's an imposing beast and absolutely vicious. His appearance fits his attitude as he's brilliantly red and covered in horns. When the Hand of the King, Otto Hightower (Rhys Ifans) attempts to retrieve a stolen dragon egg from Daemon alongside an outfit of the King's guard, Caraxes stands on a mountain menacingly. It's clear this dragon only means business. But only time will tell if Daemon wields him for total destruction.
Of course, Walt Disney is seemingly the purveyor of modernized fairy tales in the 20th century and beyond. "Sleeping Beauty" is, perhaps, one of the studio's most well-known animated films. The central villainous figure in that movie is the evil sorceress, Maleficent. She acquired her own live-action film with Angelina Jolie filling the role of the meddling villain. Only this time, she was given a more sympathetic role and her character was somewhat retconned to be considered a powerful fairy. Still, no one can forget that classic gauntlet of the prince cutting through the thorny vines surrounding Princess Aurora's castle and battling Maleficent as a full-blown dragon in the climactic finale of the animated film. However, things definitely don't go down the same path in the live-action reimagining.
The guy does not get the girl. Prince Phillip (Brenton Thwaits) attempts to awaken the princess with a kiss, but apparently, it's not meant to be. After Maleficent finds her having fallen into the curse she once angrily bestowed on her royal line, she is filled with remorse and kisses Aurora's forehead. This awakens the princess. But the King's guards refuse to let the pair leave. They assault Maleficent. During the fight, she transforms her loyal pet crow, Diaval, into a fearsome dragon. The dragon lights the castle on fire and commendably holds down the fort for a time. Eventually, the king's guards overwhelm the beast and restrain him. Still, as far as live-action dragons are concerned, it's a brilliant recreation of the dragon Maleficent once turned into in the animated film, albeit with crow-like feathers and something of a beaked snout. The mythical creature still maintains the iconic horns that look much like Maleficent's own.
The magical world of "Harry Potter" is filled to the brim with fairy tale creatures of all varieties. So it's kind of a no-brainer that dragons would be a part of this world's wildlife. The film series portrays dragons on multiple occasions. Most notably, fans might remember the harrowing first challenge Harry must endure in "Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire." He has to maneuver passed a fearsome dragon and claim a dragon egg. No sweat, right?
But there's one dragon that stands out as far more memorable than the rest. This little guy made his entrance into the world in the first film, "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone." Quite literally, he hatched from an egg on Hagrid's table. Sure, dragons are often known for their grandeur and majesty. But there's something innocent and sweet about baby Norbert. Long before he gains massive fangs and a ferocious temperament, a baby dragon is just as vulnerable as the rest of us. Ron quickly identifies him as a Norwegian Ridgeback. The little critter also nearly singes Hagrid's beard right off of his face. But like all mystical beasts, Hagrid falls in love with the little guy. And honestly, who couldn't?
This good boy might have you wanting to give him a belly rub or a scratch behind the ear. He doesn't exactly look like any dragon we've ever seen, but he might resemble some of our canine compadres. Falkor doesn't have any wings, but he can defy gravity nonetheless. Similar to a traditional Chinese dragon, he can slither through the air with his long body. He's mostly covered in fur, but he does have scales along his back.
In "The Neverending Story," Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) is tasked with finding a cure for the Empress of a magical land called Fantasia. This world is falling into ruin as a terrible force encroaches on its borders and threatens to wipe it from existence. Oh, and did we mention that this story takes place in a book being read by an elementary student in an atic? But it's not just any tale, the characters in the book react to the little boy reading their story. It's a truly magical experience all around. Falkor is a gentle giant who swoops in and provides a quick getaway for Atreyu as he runs from the vicious Gmork. The dragon is soft-spoken and becomes a great companion for the hero. What's not to love?
Children of the '90s all know Draco, the beloved dragon at the center of "Dragonheart." The film tells the tale of a dragon who aided an ailing prince named Einon (David Thewlis) by offering him part of his heart. The only condition is that the dragon asks Einon to be an honorable leader. With that agreement, the dragon saves the boy's life. Unfortunately, however, Einon doesn't live up to his bargain. He becomes a tyrannical king who enslaves his enemies and oppresses his own kingdom. Bowen (Dennis Quaid), a knight who once mentored Einon, sees the monstrous change in the royal and becomes a dragon slayer. He believes the dragon is to blame for Einon's evil ways. Years later, Bowen is hunting a dragon that retaliates. However, the battle ends with Bowen in the dragon's mouth but pointing a sword through the roof of the beast's mouth toward its brain. They both agree to not kill one another.
Bowen later names the dragon, Draco, after a constellation. The two partner up on a myriad of adventures that ultimately lead them to a confrontation with Einon. Make no mistake, Draco will charm his way into your heart. The spunky dragon and Bowen offer plenty of delightful banter to entertain a crowd. While the special effects might be lacking in the modern era, this is one dragon adventure you won't want to miss.
What's more formidable than a fire-breathing dragon? How about a three-headed dragon that stands taller than a skyscraper? Godzilla has faced plenty of foes throughout his lifetime. But King Ghidorah might possibly be his fiercest match. The beast threatens to be an apocalyptic scourge across the planet, but it's up to Godzilla to stop him. In "Godzilla: King of the Monsters," King Ghidorah causes devastation on a massive scale. His imposing size and ferocity know no bounds, and destruction is his only goal.
The humans at the center of the clash between titans in this film attempt to figure out the monster's weaknesses. They reveal that Ghidorah may actually be of extra-terrestrial origin. This alien beast hopes to wipe the slate clean on Earth and transform it. In the third act, Ghidorah nearly kills Godzilla. The heroic monster is only saved at the last minute by Mothra's sacrifice. What an interesting (and devastating) world Earth would be with a 60-story, three-headed dragon roaming the land.
The Mother of Dragons relies on her fire-breathing beasts as a show force. Having control of the remaining known dragon population in the entire land. They're capable of significant damage causing mass slaughter with one sweeping breath of flames. Once the White Walkers take control of Viserys, the undead dragon begins destroying the great wall that separates Westeros from the north wild lands.
Drogon is Dany's dragon of choice. He's named after her deceased Dothraki husband, Khal Drogo (Jason Momoa). Drogon is easily the largest dragon in her brood of triplets. Perhaps, that's why she's chosen this particular beast as her faithful steed. Nothing says power like riding atop a massive dragon. Drogon shows just how powerful he is in the final moments of the series when the hopeful Targaryen Queen becomes mad with rage and unleashes the beast's fiery arsenal on the entirety of King's Landing. Drogon is akin to a modern nuclear bomb, a weapon of mass destruction. Upon the demise of Daenerys, Drogon spares her killer, John Snow, perhaps having the mental acuity to understand that she took things too far recklessly commanding the dragon to tire himself in the work of administering death. Even still, he outlasted most of the major characters as he whisks Dany's body off to lands unknown.
"The Hobbit" trilogy may have not been the critical boon that Peter Jackson's "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy was, but it still offered fans of the original movie trilogy a chance to revisit Middle-earth once again. The films have plenty of highs and lows in adapting J. R. R. Tolkien's original novel. But most assuredly, Smaug is an all-time high. The terrifying dragon is backed by the vocal talent of Benedict Cumberbatch. Bathing in his pile of hoarded gold, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) disturbed the dragon's slumber. Once Bilbo understands the dragon is going to kill him, he uses the powerful ring to hide from the dragon's presence. While invisible, Smaug remarks that he can still sense the hobbit nearby.
Smaug isn't just a vicious lumbering beast. He's crafty. Despite his isolation, he knows just about everything that seems to be going on in Middle-earth. He's aware of Sauron's plot to return and of the Dwarves planning to take back their wealth and riches. And as far as an on-screen realization of a dragon is concerned, Smaug is brilliant by design. The camera angles and animation magnify the size of the mythical animal and underscore just how intimidating he really is. Smaug is definitively one of the most awe-inspiring dragons to ever hit the large screen.