I was thinking about opening this article with some sort of thoughtful essay on dragons and their place in popular culture, but you know what? That's basically unnecessary. Dragons are cool. Everyone knows it. Here are my three favorites. So there.
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958)
The 7th Voyage of Sinbad has a lot of awesome moments... the attack of the Roc bird, the skeleton fight, the cyclops, the miniaturization of the Princess, and so on. But my favorite part of the film is definitely Sokurah's dragon. It's a wonderfully elegant creature, sporting the classic storybook dragon design and brought to fire-breathing life by special effects master Ray Harryhausen.
Die Nibelungen (1924)
A while ago, I went out on a lake in a canoe. Rowing out to the other side, I passed through a shallow portion of water, with tree stumps and overgrown moss all around. Then, all of a sudden, I saw a monster in the water. Not all at once mind you. First there were the razor sharp claws. Then an armor-plated tail the size of a forearm. Finally a spike-lined shell, coated with a slimy layer of seaweed, revealed itself. I realized it was a snapper turtle and a quite large one at that. Its movements were lethargic but deliberate, and it seemed like it could have been a thousand years old.
That's the vibe I get from the absolutely beautiful Fafner in Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen. It seems ancient, and its face gives off a sort of aged and deep-felt sorrow. Though its tired movement was probably more due to the limitations of the puppet than artistic reasons, I really feel like it adds to the personality of the creature, which is ultimately the most important thing. You can have all the technology in the world to create jaw-dropping special effects, and it doesn't mean a thing unless there's soul behind it.
Made during what I would call "the Golden Age of Special Effects", this Disney/Paramount co-production boasts my absolute favorite movie dragon... the Vermithrax Pejorative! Curiously, this is the only dragon on my list that flies, and it boasts an intimidating wingspan to be sure. The creature takes to swooping through and fire-blasting villages like a medieval blitzkrieg.
This mighty beast was realized with a combination of full-scale animatronics, puppetry, and go-motion, a variant on the stop motion special effects process. Stop motion has a tendency to appear "jerky" due to the fact that, being animated from still images, every frame of simulated movement is perfectly clear and lacking in motion blur. Go-motion brings the missing element into the mix through a variety of methods including motorized movement, the smearing of Vaseline over the camera lens, or just bumping the animation table during exposure.
The result is absolutely breathtaking, giving us a dragon that's big, bad, dynamic, and dangerous. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any clips of the dragon to show you, so here are some particularly awesome stills of it for your enjoyment!
The Vermithrax Pejorative with another ILM creation, the Rancor from Return of the Jedi
Some dragon images taken from this wonderful gallery. Definitely check it out for more Vermithrax Pejorative awesomeness.