A band of mismatched do-gooders. An Odyssean-level quest to save the day. Body switching. Inter-dimensional travel. An ultimate showdown of good versus evil. And of course, dragons. Lots of them. More than Daenerys could ever handle. Ummm…why isn’t this a live action movie yet?
But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Flight Of Dragons is a 1982 direct-to-video (that’s VHS, kids) animated film by Rankin/Bass, the duo that brought us The Hobbit and The Last Unicorn, amongst other classics. These gentlemen deserve ALL the lifetime achievement awards. The film is based on both the 1979 novel of the same name by Peter Dickinson and the 1976 novel The Dragon and the George. It was also a staple of my childhood, played on repeat till that poor tape wore out, along with the other aforementioned movies from the same studio.
Following a grand orchestral opening, we meet Carolinus, the green wizard, who sets the tone for the film. The world of magic he resides in is fading and bending towards that of science and logic. Which side will ultimately triumph?
But first, cue the tears as the haunting folksy theme song is sung by none other than Don McLean, transporting us even further back to a time of other hippy-era dragons like Puff (The Magic)…
Carolinus (voiced by Harry Morgan of M*A*S*H fame) summons his ethnically diverse brothers (hooray for token 80’s inclusiveness!), each one a wizard representing a different fantastic realm, to a meeting. He proposes that before science inevitably wipes out all their powers, they should combine energies to create The Realm of Magic, a haven for all things mystical, like fairies, elves, talking animals, and their beloved dragons.
While two of his brothers agree with Carolinus, the third, Ommadon—the red wizard of the realm of death—refuses to succumb to a so-called magical “retirement village.” He threatens to use humanity’s fear against itself using dark arts, hoping to rid the world of humans once and for all by wreaking havoc and destruction upon them.
If you missed his name in the opening credits, Ommadon’s voice will sound chillingly familiar to you: it’s Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones, trading in breathy gravitas for a gravel-filled timbre so monstrous it still reminds me of how I instinctively cowered from the character as a child.
Knowing he must be stopped, Carolinus proposes a quest to destroy Ommadan and prevent further chaos. He finds his champion in the form of a modern day man of science, a scholar from Boston named Peter Dickinson. (Yes, like the source author—the film has many meta references.) Peter is voiced with youthful enthusiasm by John Ritter. It seems crystal (ball) clear to Carolinus that this young man with a mind for the logical and a personal passion for the fantastical will make him the perfect leader for the quest.
After transporting a delighted Peter back to the magical realm, a freak spell-related accident merges his mind with the body of the dragon Gorbash. The quest starts off on unsteady footing as the young man struggles with inhabiting a creature he has long loved and fantasized about but does not know the first thing of how to actually be.
Along the way Peter/Gorbash is joined by a diverse group of heroes: a chivalrous knight, a wise elderly dragon, a talking wolf, an elf, and a female archer—whose request to join the all male troupe is met without question or hesitation. It’s a nice moment of casual ’80s girl power despite the fact that the only other female character in the movie is Carolinus’ ward, Princess Melisande. A dutiful, obedient and somewhat simpering girl with an Instagram-worthy Rapunzel/Princess Leia hybrid hairdo, Melisande quickly falls in love with Peter (well, to be fair, her options are slim) and deems him her champion. Not permitted to join the quest, she serves as the troupe’s narrator as she watches them through visions.
For a children’s movie, The Flight of Dragons has a surprising amount of depth and detail that probably went over many kids’ heads, as it certainly did mine, at that time. In re-watching I could not help but notice the level of self-awareness, the adult humor, and occasional frightening moments that made me wonder why my parents let me watch it over and over again back in the day.
The Christian imagery is heavy, beginning with the search for a young savior who may have to ultimately sacrifice himself, and his selection by an all-knowing invisible entity called “Antiquity,” who appears only once as a burning bush—sorry, sparkly tree. Then there’s the resurrection of a supporting character who returns from the dead to save the quest. There is even a casual water-into-wine moment where Carolinus changes cider into milk to soothe his upset stomach.
The movie also manages to convey Peter’s intellectual curiosity in some interesting ways. Using his scientific background, Peter tries to make sense, for both himself and the viewers, of how exactly dragons function. In detailed terms he explains the physical processes that allow a dragon lift to fly, create fire to breathe, and why they have a need to hoard gold. It is never presented as pandering or simplistic, something sorely lacking in modern children’s television.
Also quite striking are the various obstacles the questing party encounter along the way in the form of monsters, ogres, and evil dragons. These are animated ferociously and introduced with a jump scare or two. They are not intended to be endearing or delightful but to instill fear, and do so quite well. There is plenty of death, both graphically depicted and implied, that show the stakes and severity involved when taking on pure evil.
With a slick Japanese style of animation and swelling soundtrack devoid of any musical numbers (beyond the title sequence), the movie holds up well, for the most part. If anything, there is a certain sorrow to be felt when contemplating how much further we have advanced in the world of science while leaving behind the fantasies of youth.
So the question arises once again: why does this movie remain locked in time? Yes, there is a DVD available at various sources online, but while the editing feels perfect for television (with many well-timed stops), it has not aired in decades. And unlike many other direct-to-video films of the 80s and 90s, the fandom online is limited. Etsy, for example, has barely any Flight of Dragons-inspired fan-made art and plush toys, compared to, say, the mountain of goods related to films like The Secret of NIMH or Labyrinth.
I usually have a tough time finding anyone who can remember having seen the film, if they’ve heard of it at all. It seems to be one of those childhood movies that may not be completely forgotten, but one that was just overshadowed by too much competition at the video rental store.
There is a short moment in the film where one dragon remarks about another, “By all that’s magic, is the Dragon not a wonderful creature?” That sentiment still certainly seems to ring true in modern media—it reminds me of the strangely touching moment in the most recent season of Game of Thrones where Tyrion Lannister approaches Khaleesi’s chained dragons for the first time. He speaks to them, soothing their wariness, recalling his childhood wish to have his own dragon, back when the creatures were said to be extinct. When it comes to dragons, even a cocksure and somewhat hardened figure like Tyrion can be flown, sentimentally, down memory lane on their spiked wings.
He’s not alone—in recent years, we have seen these creatures pop up in Harry Potter, Eragon, the How To Train Your Dragon movies, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug and, most recently, in the revival of Pete’s Dragon. They clearly continue to inspire wonderment and fascination, and I encourage anyone who’s ever had a childhood fantasy involving these magnificent beasts to seek out this movie.
In one particular scene, a whole horde of dragons falls out of the sky, lulled to sleep by a magic flute. Each creature is animated differently, and sumptuously for its time. You can see the varying scales and horns. Some are rough, others are sleek. Some belong in King Arthur’s Court, others lifted from a Ming Vase. It is a gorgeously rich piece of wordless animation.
So I am puzzled why this movie has garnered some interest from Hollywood (there was a live action version announced in 2012 and later cancelled), but with ultimately no result. It seems prime for the hatching.
There are many live action films on the upcoming docket that seek to revamp vintage cartoons. The benefit of a remake is that there will be a new childhood classic for the next generation while the previous generation can enjoy a familiar story. Should it fall short of expectations, as sadly many live action updates do, then it will hopefully encourage people to seek out the original material. Republish the books and get an extras-filled anniversary DVD for the cartoon.
And that, ultimately, is why I pine for a revival of The Flight Of Dragons—so it can gain a new following, and maybe reach cult-level status, complete with more frequent cosplaying and midnight screenings…
In the meantime, it can stay firmly solidified in its own magic realm—the realm of nostalgia. It will be safe there. And I’m fine with that.
Originally published October 2016.