Here we find Rob casting his mind back, way back, into time, and reminiscing on his most beloved movie.
I can’t remember when I first saw this movie, it’s lost somewhere in the mist and untrustworthy memories of my early childhood. My Grandad Jack recorded it off the telly as something to keep me amused when I was over his place, along with the whole of the TV series Tugs (which had an equally massive influence on my developing mind), and when visiting I watched them both religiously (I’ve just remembered, in order to watch Flight of Dragons, I had to first fast forward through Dirty Dancing, which was the first thing on the tape, to this day I’ve never seen it at normal speed).
Flight of Dragons came out in 1982. It was an epic animated fantasy tale , one of a few such films made for TV by Rankin/Bass. It was based on, oddly, two distinct books. The first was the one with which it shared a title, The Flight of Dragons by Peter Dickinson, which was a mock non-fiction book, in which the author presented a convincing case for how dragons could have actually existed and been scientifically and historically plausible. From this the film took its title, the explanation of the unique biology of dragons, and the name of the author for it’s leading man, as well as using the books fantastic art to inform its own visual style. The characters and plot were lifted, for the most part, from The Dragon and The George by Gordon R. Dickson, then blended up with some more elements of the film makers own imagination.
These days it’s hard to imagine a film being made with such a cavalier attitude to it’s source material, at least without being hounded by angry folk on the internet the whole time, but the cinematic chimera that resulted from such frankenstein screenwriting truly is greater than the sum of it’s parts.
In a nutshell, the story begins with Carolinus, The Green Wizard and one of the four magic brothers, who with their dragon companions act as avatars for the various aspects of magic and the magical world. Carolinus and the others find that their magic is fading as mankind evolves and turns from the fantastical to logic and the laws of science. Carolinus proposes creating a hidden realm for them to retreat to, from where their power can be preserved and act as inspiration for a world that may still need them, even as it outgrows them. The Red Wizard, Ommadon, dismisses this plan as a ‘retirement village’ and instead threatens to lead mankind astray, encouraging the worst potential of scientific advances, until they destroy themselves.
The solution to this is apparently to summon a man from the twentieth century back through time, to lead a good old fashioned magic quest to defeat Ommadon. That man is a fictionalised version of Peter Dickinson, a scientist with a deep passion for magic and fantasy, particularly dragons, as well as being future author of the book The Flight Of Dragons (which Carolinus has a copy of in his Library Of Unwritten Books). It is Peter’s gift for bridging the two worlds of magic and logic which makes him the ideal hero for the quest that he is to dispatched on.
Things are complicated when a miscast spell causes Peter’s mind to be magically merged with the body of Carolinus’ dragon, Gorbash. So now Peter must embark on a quest to steal the evil wizard’s jeweled crown, while also being taught the ways of his new race by elder Dragon, Smrgol, learning how to fly, breathe fire, the lot (and deducing the science of how it worked, which he will, of course write into his book). From here the oddball fellowship continue on your standard quest, coming up against various encounters as they make their way to The Realm of The Red Death (how can you not love that?!) The twist in the formula come from Peter using his knowledge of science to approach problems differently to his fellows, using modern knowledge and lateral thinking to get out of assorted scrapes and dangers. The conflict and potential coexistence of magic and science finally coming to a head in the film’s spine-tingling finale
Ostensibly this is a kids movie, (the vile artwork for the last official video release makes this plain) but more than anything I watched and loved when I was little, this movie has really aged well, and still delights me as an adult. This is because of a couple of things. Firstly, while the actual animation may be a little clunky looking by today’s standards, the art is striking, somehow both beautiful visions and grotesque nightmare fuel, sometimes simultaneously. And by taking it’s cue pretty much entirely from the Wayne Anderson’s art from the source book, it avoids some of the dating that may otherwise have occurred. Second, the voice acting is top notch across the board (particularly James Earl Jones’ barnstorming turn as Ommadon, a character so utterly batshit evil that he makes Darth Vader pale in comparison), and while it never quite reaches the levels of earlier Rankin/Bass production The Return of The King (1980), the dialogue does have some satisfying moments of blood and thunder, mostly from the wizards, appropriately, though the chivalric knight Sir Orrin Neville Smythe also delivers the finest speech in movie history here, when facing off against Bryargh the Devil-Dragon, still gives me chills thinking about it. Lastly the story has a core of intelligent subtext drawn from both its source books, which both took a postmodern look at the fantasy genre, and while it keeps itself safe for work, the film doesn’t really talk down to it’s audience, most of the stuff about antiquity, dragon physiology and the need for stories and fantasy to inspire real world achievement sailed right over my six year old head, but I was hooked by the monsters and wizards and magic and ogres, all presented in a slightly rugged, definitely non-cutesy way, a way that would in no uncertain terms not be replicated now. Also dragons. Hundreds of dragons.
The biggest tragedy of this being my favourite film, is it’s total lack of availability. It’s been shown on TV in the UK, but video and DVD releases have been virtually non-existent. Warners did a made-to-order DVD for the US only in 2009, and that’s about it, forcing fans to acquire the film via more nefarious means, it seems to be the hardest to gain of all Rankin/Bass’ catalogue, which only increases my deep affection for it, a rare delight that is personal to only a select few. If I come across a fellow fan of this movie, that’s when I know I’ve met someone really worth talking to, especially if they’ve gone to the trouble of procuring their very own copy.