Sunday, November 8, 2015
Kickstart my heart
When Dragon's Lair was first unveiled to me as a nine-year-old boy in 1983, it transported me into the world of a knight so daring, it was part of his name. Dirk the Daring was on a mission to save the (surprisingly scantily clad) Princess Daphne from the dragon imprisoning her (in some kind of magic bubble). I couldn't take my eyes off the shimmering video game comprised of animated characters you could actually control, and was in awe of anyone who dared step forward to play it. Me, I tried my own hand, eventually, but it was always more fun to watch someone who actually knew how to play.
When Don Bluth -- the former Disney animator who created Dragon's Lair -- announced last week via Kickstarter that he wanted to raise money to make a Dragon's Lair movie, it transported me back to 1983, into the body of that young child.
So much so that when I first learned about the project yesterday, I considered backing a Kickstarter project for the first time ever. I'd say that my cursor was even hovering over the Back This Project button, ready to click, but that would be one step closer than I actually got.
Unfortunately, all this nostalgia for my youth may be stillborn, as the project is trying to earn $550,000 from its Kickstarter backers but is not even a third of the way there with just 18 days to go.
But how great would it be to see Dirk reincarnated? My imagination was so captured by this video game that some of my earliest writings were about a similar adventurer, though at this point I don't remember what I called him. I do remember that my friend Eric and I made some rudimentary version of a Dungeons & Dragons adventure game featuring a knight involved in similar Rube Goldbergian feats of ducking and dodging, who went by the recognizably similar name "Girt."
I'll link you to Bluth's Kickstarter campaign here, But to be honest, the video he's made to encourage us is a bit lame. I hope you'll give, and I may actually do so as well. But a lot more interesting in terms of links is two others that most Dragon's Lair fans have probably seen by now -- a playthrough of the game from start to finish on one life (here), and the probably even more fun montage of all Dirk's possible deaths (here). The latter starts with the video game's epic, enthralling "trailer" and then takes on a completely madcap tone of gruesome (yet PG) death and mayhem.
These less than 20 combined minutes, at least the first 11 of which I'd already seen, were enough to remind me how the world of Dirk and Daphne so captivated me, and how much I'd like to revisit it.
But I'm wondering if part of the reason the Kickstarter campaign has only attracted limited financial interest is that Dragon's Lair is even more of an anachronism now than when it first came out.
Whereas upon its first release, it represented a whole new paradigm for video game possibility, now its mentality is kind of ancient. As is probably obvious, the actual game play merely involves choosing the correct joystick movement or swing of a sword at just the right juncture, causing the next scene in the action to play rather than a death scene. As much as it seemed like you were controlling animated characters, all you were really doing was selecting the next video clip. In reality, it was more of a choose your own adventure than a video game.
And one wonders if that has any relevance at all to modern gamers, who should be a significant portion of the people supplying that precious disposable income on Kickstarter, not to mention a significant portion of the movie's eventual audience. To be sure, this one is aiming straight at our nostalgia, and therefore is really more aimed at people in their forties and fifties. But are we alone a donating bloc big enough to get us to Bluth's desired $550,000, which will allow him to make a "sizzle reel" and animated one minute of new footage? Are we even collectively tuned in enough to what Kickstarter actually is? He's only at $144,000 now, so one would say "It doesn't look like it."
Of course, as is the case with any nostalgic property and with video games in particular, the original incarnation of the cultural artifact is less important than what you do with it. The fact that Dragon's Lair was a video game is not really relevant, in the sense that what Bluth is banking on is our love for the characters he created, and a desire to see where they might go or what they might do.
But really, what characters? Even as Bluth acknowledges in his campaign that it all starts with a good script, we have to wonder what such a script would look like. Daphne talks, saying things like "Save me!" and providing some preliminary instructions in a voice that sounds halfway between Betty Boop and Marilyn Monroe. (And yes, she'd have to be a lot more of a feminist character in any update.) But Dirk communicates only via a series of grunts and screams and expressions of quizzical surprise. He's essentially a blank slate.
What we fell in love with was character design (Dirk looks fantastic) and a series of bite-sized set pieces, involving swinging ropes of fire and falling platforms and escapes from Lizard Kings and crumbling floors. There is not a story, per se, and one wonders if there ever could be. As soon as you force structure on to this scenario, does it lose all its charm?
Also, how much of the game's charm is wrapped up in those creative deaths, presumably none of which would ever be seen? Is a Dirk the Daring who doesn't have the life squeezed out of him by a snake, or drown in rapids, or get electrocuted, or get squashed by a giant rolling marble, or drink a potion that turns him into dust, or fall shrieking down a bottomless pit (which is fully half of the deaths) still a Dirk we will know, love, or even recognize?
Also, when half of this wonderfully craggy castle, which somehow contains an unlimited number of rooms of massive space and dimension, can't entirely crumble away into nothing without losing the structural integrity that a movie demands as a sort of minimum level of realism, where will we be then?
Of course, a smart script will have ways around this, and of course, it could also contain Dirk imagining various gruesome (but still PG) fates should he not barely avoid that closing door or self-building wall or column of fire or cauldron of bubbling goop.
But then there's also the question of the style of animation Bluth would use. It would seem it would have to be hand-drawn, and also that the basic character designs could only be minimally tweaked in order to retain the nostalgia that is making us interested in this project in the first place. How does hand-drawn animation play in this day and age? Especially when that style is arguably key to any success the property may have in the first place? It's no surprise that the animated world is only venturing into hand-drawn rarely, and with imperfect results (as in Disney's The Princess and the Frog).
It doesn't look like Bluth will raise enough money to see.
However, there's always a possibility that the mere existence of the Kickstarter campaign and the resulting media coverage will awaken the sleeping dreamer in someone like me, who may also have been nine years old in 1983 but may have made a lot more money than I have since then. There must be examples of Kickstarter campaigns that have failed in their actual goals, but have generated financial backing anyway by gaining the attention of a single source who has swooped in to save the project.
I was never good enough to get very far in Dragon's Lair the video game, and I'm not rich enough to take Dragon's Lair the movie very far. But just as there was always someone who had practiced enough to show me the complete adventures of Dirk the Daring, maybe there's someone who has earned enough to help Bluth bring us the even more complete adventures of our intrepid hero.
Pretty sure they'll have to put more clothes on Daphne, though.
One thing I'm quite sure we'll never see: a successful Kickstarter campaign, or even a campaign mounted, for a movie version of Bluth's follow up to Dragon's Lair, Space Ace. Although that also captured a limited amount of my imagination at the time, I watched a playthrough of that bizarre game on Youtube as well, and was reminded of how, well, bizarre it was.