The Best Dragons in Pop Culture From Every Decade

DRAGON'S LAIR, Dirk the Daring, Princess Daphne, 1984-85,
Ruby-Spears Productions/Courtesy: Everett Collection

The Lunar New Year is coming up on Feb. 10! If you are unfamiliar with what it really is, it is a new year for many Asians, as they celebrate the new year by the lunar calendar of the lunar moon phase. Each new year brings in a new animal of the Chinese zodiac calendar. This year it is the year of the dragon. If your zodiac sign happens to be a dragon, you are in luck! Dragons are said to be a symbol of luck, abundance, power and prosperity, and will bring good fortune to those who are. Typically, if you were born any of these years, 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, 2024, you are a dragon. For the rest of us, we can just enjoy these popular dragons in pop culture and hope that good fortune will be spread to all in 2024.

Sleeping Beauty (1959)


Everett Collection

Celebrating its 65th anniversary this year, who could forget the classic tale of Princess Aurora getting pricked by a spindle after a curse was placed on her and falling under a deep spell? Only a prince could save her with true love’s kiss, but before he could save her, he had to conquer the wicked evil fairy Maleficent, who could shape-shift into a big scary dragon. In true Disney spirit, the prince prevailed. Like all things, it was reimagined into a live-action movie starring Angelina Jolie in 2014 called Maleficent.

Puff the Magic Dragon

PUFF, THE MAGIC DRAGON, Jackie, Puff, 1978

Everett Collection

Folk trio Peter, Paul & Mary turned this song, based on a poem written by Leonard Lipton in 1959, into a smash single. While it has been heavily scrutinized over the years for its supposed drug use references, it is simply about a boy coming of age and leaving his imaginary dragon behind after they shared many adventures of fighting pirates and facing many of his other childhood fears of growing up. It was turned into a TV movie in 1977 featuring Burgess Meredith voicing the dragon Puff that spun off two more sequels and has also been a popular children’s book. Fun Fact: Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary voiced the dad in the 1977 movie.

Pete’s Dragon (1977)

Another Disney classic, this time as a live-action/animation combo that Disney studios were so known for. Pete’s Dragon tells the tale of an orphan boy named Pete as he, along with his dragon Elliott — whom only he can see — run away from his abusive adoptive family. The duo comes upon a quaint little fishing town and is taken in by the lighthouse keeper and his daughter. Meanwhile, the clumsy dragon causes all sorts of mischief, and poor Pete is blamed for it since no one believes him about his dragon, until more trouble comes to town trying to reclaim Pete. Then the townsfolk believe in Elliott. It was recently reimagined in 2016.

The Hobbit (1977)

Smaug from Rankin/Bass The Hobbit

Courtesy of Rick Goldschmidt Archives

Originally a book written by J.R.R. Tolkien in 1937, this first was adapted for the screen in an animation short in 1966. In 1977 famed Animagic studio Rankin/Bass turned it into a made-for-TV animated movie starring the voice of Orson Bean as Bilbo Begins as he goes on an adventure with band of 12 dwarves as they try to reclaim their home that is being controlled by a gold-wielding dragon named Smaug. It was brought to the big screen by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson as a trilogy in 2012.

Dragonslayer (1981)

A young wizard apprentice played by future Ally McBeal alum Peter MacNicol is chosen to go kill the ravenous dragon that devours young girls from a nearby kingdom.

Dungeons & Dragons

Books, die, figurines from Dungeons and Dragons to go with story on the game's creator, Gary Gygax

Simon Hayter/Toronto Star via Getty Images

For all you role players, the tabletop dice game was originally launched in 1974 by TSR. It became such a massive success that it spawned several adaptations on both the big and small screen. The TV series in part produced by Marvel along with TSR aired from 1983-85 and was an animated version of the game. The movie series didn’t come along until 2000 and the most recent version just came out in 2023.

Dragon’s Lair (1983 video game)

A fantasy graphics game ahead of its time in computing pitched the player as a knight needing to defeat the dragon to rescue a princess in this choose-your-own-adventure style game. I remember being in arcades when this game was out. I thought it had the most outstanding graphics and rightfully so, as it was designed by Don Bluth. It looked so fun to play, but given the steep price per play — I think $1 back then — I just had to marvel and watch others play it. It also inspired a short-lived TV series of the same name.

The NeverEnding Story (1984)

THE NEVERENDING STORY, Noah Hathaway, 1984,

Warner Brothers/courtesy Everett Collection

This magical fantasy movie tells the tale of a beautiful world falling apart by “the nothing” in the form of a book being read by a young boy, Bastian. In the book, another young boy named Atreyu seeks to save Fantasia from being destroyed, and after losing his horse, he starts to get lost in a world full of sadness. Just then he is rescued by Falkor, a white good-luck dragon who helps him finish his mission to save Fantasia.

Dragonheart (1996)


Universal/courtesy Everett Collection

This film starred Dennis Quaid as a dragonslayer named Bowen in a war-torn 10th century as he teams up with the last dragon, Draco (voiced by Sean Connery), to help save the kingdom from a torturous young evil king. To bring peace to the kingdom, they need to defeat King Enion, and it will be no easy task as he has partial immortality that he received from Draco as a young child. It was nominated for an Oscar for its outstanding special effects of the dragon.

Mulan (1998)

MULAN, Mushu, Mulan, 1998.

Walt Disney Pictures/ Courtesy: Everett Collection. (upgraded to 17.7 x 12.1 in)

This Disney animated feature chronicles the daring adventures of Mulan, a brave young woman who is faced with the terrible reality that her ailing father will be killed in battle. Driven by love and devotion for her family, she disguises herself as a man and secretly takes her father’s place in the Imperial army. However, her ancestors are aware of her plan and send a tiny disgraced dragon named Mushu (voiced by Eddie Murphy) her way to talk her out of her plan. Learning he can’t, he vows to help her. Fun fact: This isn’t Murphy’s only animated role with dragons. In the Shrek trilogy, he voices Donkey who ends up marrying a dragon.

Spike From My Little Pony

Dragons weren’t just for boys! The first generation of My Little Pony toys had a baby purple dragon named Spike who was also in the 1986 cartoons. Then in 2010, the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic clan had Spike the teenage dragon as Twilight Sparkle’s best friend and assistant. Sure, he was a male who laughed at other’s misfortunes, but the ponies were certainly all a little girl wanted in the ’80s. Or even today, as they made a comeback again with generation five in 2021.

Game of Thrones

Game of ThronesSeason 8

Credit: HBO

The book series written by George R. R. Martin began in the ’90s, but it was in 2011 when HBO turned it into one of the top-rated series ever that dragons really cemented themselves in pop culture history in the quest for the Iron Throne. After all, it has won 59 Emmys, the most of any drama TV show! It even spawned the prequel House of Dragons, which will be returning soon for its second season.

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October 2023

Take a fond look back at our favorite small-screen spellbinders

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