Youtube is like a crow’s nest. An octopus’ garden. A dragon’s hoard. It’s a vast pile of video, mostly junk, where, if you’re a determined searcher, if someone else gives you a good tip, or if you’re just plain lucky, you might find buried treasure. The other day, my friend Kim and I were reminiscing about our favourite cartoons and animated features from childhood. One that sprang quickly to mind for me was “The Flight of Dragons”. On a whim, I decided to probe Youtube to see if I could find any trace of it. I wasn’t holding out much hope, since the producers and distributors have never transferred this feature to DVD (there are VHS copies available from some sources online, but if I’m going to spend money on something like this, I’d like it to be a quality copy on modern technology) and there aren’t many people these days who remember it.
But the gods of retro animated video must have been smiling that day, because I found it! And not just the official feature trailer or fan-created videos, but the whole thing! Someone has posted the entire “The Flight of Dragons” movie onto Youtube in 11 parts (each about 10 minutes long). Jackpot!
So I sat down in front of the computer the other night and relived the magic. And I’ve gotta say, in the decades since I originally saw it on TV, “The Flight of Dragons” hasn’t lost its charm.
The story (based on the novels of Gordon R. Dickson and Peter Dickinson, screenplay by Romeo Muller) is about Peter, a 20th century man, pulled back into a magical past to aid the forces of good in a quest to defeat an evil wizard bent on world domination. The tale takes a twist when a spell gone wrong puts merges Peter with a dragon, leaving the man’s mind in control of the fire drake’s gigantic body. In the final showdown, Peter must choose between science and magic to save the world.
Sure, the copy posted to Youtube is dark and isn’t as crisp as it would be if the movie was available on DVD to watch at home. The animation style is a bit dated. Sometimes the dialogue is a bit clunky and on occasion John Ritter goes a bit over-the-top in playing the hero, Peter Dickinson, as a wistful geek.
But on the balance, this feature still has a lot going for it. The story sets itself up quickly but thoroughly and the pacing is logical in how it drives its characters forward. There’s a nice attempt to scientifically explain how a creature as large as a dragon could fly. Some of the dialogue works very well and there’s a fair amount of humour. Hats off to James Earl Jones for a great performance as the evil wizard Ommadon.
It’s also impressive how thoughtful a meditation the film is on how much room there is for magic in the scientifically-driven world of man. In the story this question is literal – magical forces are being diminished and fantastic creatures are being marginalized by the encroaching technology of humans. In a metaphorical sense though, the question is what room is there for dreams and fantasy in our pragmatic modern world. The answer is stated explicitly by the good wizard Carolinus in the opening act, and underscored in the finale with Peter’s victory over Ommadon and his awakening of Princess Melisande - there needs to be a balance: while one must live within the practical, real world, there needs to be imagination to energize us to improve ourselves and everything around us. A great lesson for kids and an important reminder for adults.
It’s also significant to note that “The Flight of Dragons” didn’t pull any punches in what it showed to kids. Sure there was fun and adventure and good triumphed over evil, but there was a price. In this movie, there is death – of heroes as well as villains. The old dragon, Smrgol, dies after slaying the evil Ogre of Gormley Keep in a bid to save the other heroes. Nearly all of the good guys are killed by the wicked dragon Bryagh during the climactic battle (although they are brought back to life by the good wizards after Peter’s victory). Even bystanders are not safe – the innkeeper is murdered by the Ogre of Gormley Keep when it comes to capture the heroes, and the film opens with the deaths of innocents: a swan and some faeries riding it are pulled under and killed by a mill wheel. And in presenting death as a consequence of adventure, as the sometime price of confronting evil, “The Flight of Dragons” was very much a creature of its time – mortality was a staple of movies (animated and live action) geared in part or in whole to child audiences during the 70’s and early-mid 80’s. “Watership Down”, Disney’s “Tron” and “The Black Hole” and “Child of Glass”, “The Secret of Nimh”, “The Dark Crystal”, “Starblazers” (“Space Cruiser Yamato”) and “Robotech” (“Macross”) to name but a few, all saw heroes or their sidekicks/advisors or bystanders die. To a lesser extent we see it also in “The Last Unicorn” where there is a definite sense of loss for the title character when she returns to her equine form from human shape – though she has freed her people, she can no longer truly be one of them, having experienced complex human emotions – a death of sorts. You’d be hard-pressed to find films or TV programs with children as part of the intended audience these days that featured the death of a good guy or bystander. I don’t think the killing of yesteryear was something gratuitous that TV producers had to learn to get past either. I think the presentation of death in those features was a kind of honesty, a courage to deal with children and young adult audiences with respect and an understanding that they possessed a degree of maturity. It was a way of telling kids that winning out over evil or injustice doesn’t always come without some kind of a sacrifice. Writers and producers of that era very clearly had the example of Frodo (and to a much lesser extent, Boromir) from “The Lord of the Rings” in mind when creating their fantasies.
I can only hope that we see a return to this kind of honesty in film-making for younger audiences. In the meantime, I hope we’ll someday see “The Flight of Dragons” available in a restored, high-quality form on DVD for future generations to appreciate.