Today over a billion people in China and across the world begin celebrating the Chinese New Year, with festivities going until the next full moon on Feb. 24. In the Chinese zodiac cycle, 2024 marks the Year of the Dragon—the only animal on the calendar that not a real animal, but a fantasy one. (It’s become a bit of a theme this week.)
Whenever you celebrate the New Year, we can all agree that the dragon is a pretty cool creature. Their significance in Chinese culture can be traced to the Neolithic Age more than 5,000 years ago, and the reign of Huangdi, aka the Yellow Emperor (2717-2599 BCE). He united many of China’s tribes to stand under the dragon symbol, hence why the Chinese people are “Descendants of the Dragon” and the dragon symbol can still be seen throughout Chinese history, culture and art.
All this dragon talk has breathed some fiery nostalgia into us, reminding us of some fascinating on-screen beasts that we still carry a flame for. Here are some of our favorites!
Mushu: The Comic Relief Dragon
Naturally we start with the Chinese-type dragon–which, because they can control the elements, don’t need wings to fly. Once the guardian spirit of Mulan’s family, but since demoted after the demise of his last ward, he seeks to make amends by protecting Mulan. Mushu may be diminutive–at first Mulan thinks he’s a lizard–but he makes up for that with his very big personality (thanks, Eddie Murphy!). That also makes him polarizing: some lists place him among the all-time most annoying Disney characters, along with Cinderella’s evil stepsisters and Darla from Finding Nemo. But if anyone can brush that off, it’s Mushu.
Smaug: The Hoarder of Gold
AKA “The Greatest of Calamities,” the dragon from The Hobbit loves three things: his gold, his mountain, and killing whoever tries to take either of those things. Among other weapons, the “King of the Mountain” doesn’t shy away from using his words: “My armour is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail is a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death!” Noted! Credit to the CGI artists who brought Smaug to life on screen—he is a terrifying specimen indeed.
Toothless: The Protective Best Friend
It’s not a bird, it’s not a bat—it’s Toothless! Hiccup’s best bud in How to Train Your Dragon, the all-black Night Fury Dragon just looks toothless—his chompers are actually retractable. And his Night Fury dragon breed is known as “the unholy offspring of lightning and death itself.” In some ways he lives up to that billing: He’s fierce, fearsome, and above all protective. But he also has a loving and playful side, at times more silly puppy than terrifying beast.
Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion: The One-Woman Dragons
This trio from Game of Thrones only lived for (and because of) one person: Daenerys Targaryen of House Targaryen. Born when Dany walked into a blazing fire with three dragon eggs, they stayed by her side and helped her literally and figuratively burn down every obstacle in her way to get to, you know, that chair with all the knives in it. Throners were so enthralled by all the dragon and Targaryen lore that they got their own fiery spinoff, House of the Dragon.
Falkor: The Life Coach
“Never give up, and good luck will find you.” Falkor, the optimistic luck dragon from the 1984 fantasy classic The NeverEnding Story, is unforgettable. Non-violent, kind, and sometimes awkward, Falkor was on a mission to give hope to and advice on people’s life journey.
His look reinforces this, we guess: Falkor clearly has a lithe dragon body–but also downy fur all over his body, and a disproportionately large dog-like head with a perma-smile. For most Gen Xers, the memory of Falkor is a nostalgic one–one that numbs their Artax trauma, if only for a short while.