A faraway fantasy realm has fragmented into hundreds of flying islands of various shapes and sizes, terrorized by dragons including the most terrifying of them all: the World Gobbler. Lian-Chu (voiced by Forest Whitaker), a stout but simple-minded hero with a heart of gold, and his childhood friend, cynical scam artist Gwizdo (Rob Paulsen) eke out a living as dragon hunters alongside Hector (Dave Wittenberg), a scruffy little rabbit that thinks it’s a dog but may in fact be something altogether more fantastical. Unfortunately, the dragon hunters’ low success rate has made them a laughing stock among the peasants. Elsewhere, a little princess named Zoe (Mary Matilyn Mouser) is plagued by nightmares about the impending end of the world. She convinces her uncle, Lord Arnold (Nick Jameson), to send the dragon hunters to slay the World Gobbler in the hope that its death will cure his curse of blindness and save the universe.
Dragon Hunters is a feature length spin-off from the French animated series of the same name which was created by co-director Arthur Qwak and notable for featuring a theme song performed by goth rockers The Cure. Both film and series are tonally and stylistically quite different from mainstream Pixar and Dreamworks CGI fare, depicting a vividly eccentric pseudo-medieval realm of colourful creatures and offbeat characters, but also including a cynical edge, though not excessively so. The world of Dragon Hunters is one of scoundrels, despots and surly self-serving peasants, a world where heroes do not always receive their just reward and goodness is often undervalued. Rather than make for a disheartening experience for young viewers, the seemingly harsh backdrop highlights those instances where love, friendship and bravery are most valued.
While the film’s vision of a fantasy world gradually disintegrating without the nurturing influence of an idealistic child instantly recalls The Never Ending Story (1984), but the touchingly co-dependent relationship between hulking manchild Lian-Chu and weaselly pipsqueak Gwizdo weirdly recalls Midnight Cowboy (1969) as both cling to a futile dream of earning enough money to buy a small patch of land and start a farm. The quest itself is rather pedestrian and fails to match the complexity of the production design by co-director Guillaume Ivernel, but the ongoing tension between Gwizdo’s relentlessly pragmatic worldview and Zoe’s unwavering belief in the idealism of fairytales holds our interest. Forest Whitaker (replacing original French voice artist Vincent Lindon) is somewhat muted, but then this befits the character he is playing. Veteran voice artist Rob Paulsen does an exuberant job as Gwizdo and a handful of other characters while young newcomer Mary Matilyn Mouser brings spark and sass to wee Zoe.
The visuals are impeccably crafted with inventive sight gags and some pretty spectacular set-pieces, notably a chase sequence involving the Red Cloud - hundreds of flapping, bat-like beings that join together to form an enormous crimson beast - and the climactic battle against the World Gobbler with its towering skeletal frame, eyes like molten lava and a genuinely bone-rattling roar. The transcendentally trippy finale is also unique, plus how many other animated films end with characters singing for someone to stick their money where the sun don’t shine?