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The Flight Of Dragons

The Flight Of Dragons

By Paul Costello • July 20th, 2013
Static Mass Rating: 4/5
Warner Bros.

Original release: August 17th, 1982
Running time: 92 minutes

Directors: Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin Jr.
Writers: Romeo Muller, Peter Dickinson
Composer: Maury Laws

Cast: John Ritter, Harry Morgan, Alexandra Stoddart, James Earl Jones, Bob McFadden

The Flight Of Dragons

How often do you actually go back and re-watch some of those movies you watched when you were a kid? If you’re anything like me, quite a lot. It’s interesting to revisit the films that effectively made up the foundation of your movie-watching life, see what started the development of your personal proclivities regarding genre and story, to see where your beginnings began.

What it also allows you to do is find a common link with the people of your own age, both at the time and years after the fact (“You saw The Goonies? I love The Goonies!”, “Oh my God, so do I!”). But then there are the other ones. The movies you saw that seemed to have been somehow missed by everyone else. The ones that become more personal for you because you seem to be the only one who remembers them. In my whole life, I have only ever met two other people who’ve even heard of The Flight of Dragons, let alone seen it. And considering its cast (John Ritter, Harry Morgan and James Earl Jones amongst them), its title song by Don McLean, and that it’s supposedly one of Hayao Mayazaki’s favourite films, that puzzles me.

This is the basic rundown of the film: In a time long ago, in a world defined and controlled by magic and fantasy, four brothers hold sway over the balance. However, man’s begun to forget magic, instead turning to science and logic, threatening to bring the world of magic to an end. Three of the brothers look to find a peaceful solution, but the fourth wishes to twist this new direction of man to his own ends, fostering hatred and greed and evil, destroying the magic of his brothers and bringing the world of men under his evil control forever. It falls to one of the three brothers to send forth adventurers on a quest, led by a man of science from our world, to stop the dark magic and save everyone.

Or, to use a quote from the film, “All mankind is faced with an epic choice: a world of Magic or a world of Science… which will it be?”

The Flight Of Dragons

I’ve had a lot of years watching movies since I first saw The Flight of Dragons, a film that would become an oft repeated title in my house growing up. I can’t even say as to the exact reason as to why it was something that always had me coming back to it. I’ve never really had too much of a thing for films or stories about dragons and wizards and fantasy, even though a cursory glance over other films I watched at that age would suggest otherwise, like Krull, Conan The Barbarian, The Dark Crystal, Legend and The NeverEnding Story. Even if these films were to become others I would watch regularly, the one that came before pretty much all of them in my mind was The Flight of Dragons. But how does that film stand up now? With my growth as a film lover and the broadening of my cinematic horizons over the years, can it still hold onto me as it did then?

Bearing in mind, people grow, change, and with that, their tastes change also. On top of that, the ability to recognise flaws becomes sharper, certainly more so than that of a six- or seven-year old. Sure, sometimes the film holds up, stands the test of time and remains just as enthralling now as it did on first viewing. These are titles that tend to be the ones everyone remembers, those of a shared cultural heritage, like Back To The Future, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial, and The Goonies. But it’s just as often that the film in question will be one that remains relatively unknown for good reason. Perhaps it’s time to consider the points where this film’s light has dimmed, and where it continues to shine.

I can be honest with myself when I’m trying to decide if something is any good or not. Even when it comes my own work, which some can be somewhat precious about, I can recognise The Flight Of Dragonssomething of poor quality. I hold no illusions or sentimentality about such things, and can say something is bad, even if I still like it. And The Flight of Dragons does have many problems, and they exist almost entirely in the writing.

The script for is a strangely meta work. Based predominantly on the book of the same name by Peter Dickinson (though with additional material coming from the book The Dragon & The George by Gordon R. Dickson), it effectively tells the story of a man from 20th Century Boston being pulled into a world of magic to save it. That man’s name is Peter Dickinson, and he not only made a board game based on this world, with pieces that look exactly like the characters of this magical world, but he’s also in the middle of writing a book about that world… guess what the book’s called? The whole thing has a flavour of Don Quixote, but with a less tragic core since the magic is, it would seem, very real.

This is actually kind of clever, though it does create some problems that run through the film. In an attempt to build a world in which fantasy and reality, magic and science mix together, the film will occasionally overstretch and make connections that don’t stand up to actual logic, even within the film’s own reality. Given that this is the major thematic crux of the film, such things can undercut the fantasy it’s trying to build.

On top of that, there are smaller issues within the story that are somewhat under-developed (some relationships could use work), anti-climactic (arguably the ending) or actually just kind of The Flight Of Dragonscreepy (specifically the relationship between Sir Orrin Neville-Smythe and Milisande). On viewing the film now, it’s amazing some of the stuff that really sticks out that totally slipped by then. Kids, eh?

However, speaking honestly, there’s much I still love about this film. The animation is of a kind you don’t really see anymore (perhaps you saw the 1977 animated version of The Hobbit, or the slightly better known animated film The Last Unicorn), and adapts its sense of naturalism appropriate to the characters, with humans more realsitically drawn than any of their fantasical counterparts, which in turn heightens the sense of both strangeness and familiarity throughout. The voice cast do a great job, imbuing each character with a personality, which covers the occasional bouts of poor characterisation in the script. And the one thing I shall forever love is Maury Laws’ music, which I regard as one of the most gorgeous scores in my memory… and it annoys me to no end that I can’t get it anywhere.

Now, given all I’ve said about The Flight of Dragons and my apparently shifting attitudes as to its overall quality, it’s interesting to consider all this in The Flight Of Dragonsrelation to what is the primary thematic concern of the picture: the death of magic, and the rise of reason. And this is ultimately what this review is. It’s my attempt to apply the standards of logical reason about what I believe makes a good film to something I loved when I was very young and, arguably, had fewer such concerns. Like the one in the film, my own world has gradually shifted from one driven by what could be to one dictated by what is. With that in mind, it’s perhaps inevitable that some of the shine would wear off a bit.

The Flight of Dragons is a film that requires a sense of wonder, nostalgia, perhaps even some childlike naivety in order for its magic to work. And not just the simple kind of suspension of disbelief inherently needed for pretty much any piece of fiction to work. This goes a bit beyond that. By locating itself in the world of magic, especially at the apparent moments before it finally dies, it asks the viewer to want magic to survive (shades of Tinkerbell and the eternal child Peter Pan are clear). A speech from Carolinus, the Green Wizard, talks about the need for magic in order for all things to exist. Man takes from magic and fantasy the inspiration to do great things, make advances in his own world, and so could not live without magic.

Ultimately, I would say that The Flight of Dragons has lost some of its shine for me… but only slightly. Whilst there is much of it that sticks out as recognisably clumsy writing, mystical double-speak, or opting to use a nice image even though it makes no sense in relation to its own internal logic, it still holds a place in my heart. Especially since, for better or worse, this was my introduction to the world of classic fantasy film. This was where the bar was set, and I may not have taken to the subsequent films I saw had it not been for this one coming first.

The Flight Of Dragons

Paul Costello

Paul Costello

Paul Costello is a critic, blogger and former film editor with a degree in filmmaking from the University of the West of Scotland. He’s been watching movies for as long as he can remember, and began the process of writing about every movie he owns on his blog: acinephilesjourney.blogspot.co.uk. He’ll be at that for a while. He’s also the resident film writer at TheStreetSavvy.com.

You can follow him on Twitter @PaulCinephile.

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