The Flight of Dragons (finished in 1982, not released until 1986)
Dir. by Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass
Starring James Earl Jones, John Ritter and Harry Morgan
Faced with the weakening of magic caused by the rise of scientific reasoning, three of the four great wizards attempt to seal off the realms of magic from the rest of the world, only to be opposed by the Red Wizard Ommadon. To defeat him and save magic, they recruit a knight, a dragon, and a man of science from the 20th century, Peter Dickinson. However, before the quest can begin, a magical mishap causes Dickinson’s mind to be placed in the body of the dragon. The quest must go on, though, so Dickinson has to save magic and learn to be a dragon at the same time.
My relationship with this movie and its source material is an interesting one. It was originally produced as a TV movie, and that’s how I first saw it, multiple times on cable somewhere between the ages of nine and twelve. I never managed to catch it at the beginning to tape it on VHS, though, and over time I completely forgot about it.
Flash forward to my junior year in high school, and I’m an avid reader of fantasy novels. A friend in one of my English classes recommends a book to me, The Dragon and the George by Gordon R. Dickson, and lets me borrow a copy. Through the first hundred pages or so, I had a growing sense of familiarity with it, but couldn’t place where I was recognizing it from. Then I got to the sandmirks scene, and I suddenly remembered. While the movie had billed itself as being adapted from the book of the same name by Peter Dickinson, the actual plot of the movie was from the Dickson novel I was reading.
This is the first request I’m doing for a review, and it actually turns out to be a movie that I probably should have had on my list to begin with. The story I related above is actually one of the “OMG” moments as a fantasy reader that I remember the most strongly. I’ll get into the differences between the book(s) and the movie more later on, but for now I’d like to focus on the actual movie itself.
Despite being written and produced by an American production company, Rankin/Bass (most famous for their stop-motion Christmas movies), it has a lot more in common visually with 1980s anime. Of course, this is because Rankin/Bass farmed the actual animation out to the Japanese firm Topcraft, which also did the animated Hobbit movie and The Last Unicorn (Topcraft itself would go bankrupt in 1985, and was bought by Hayao Miyazaki and renamed Studio Ghibli. Yes, that Studio Ghibli).
Like their two previous projects for Rankin/Bass, Flight of Dragons has a highly distinctive style that immediately sets it apart from a lot of the other animation being aired in America at the time. It also has a top-notch voice cast. Other than a couple cases where Bob McFadden’s British accent noticeably slips, I enjoyed pretty much everyone. And you can never go wrong casting James Earl Jones as an evil wizard.
Speaking of the wizards, they were actually surprisingly diverse given the era that the movie was produced. While the main wizard character, Carolinus, is a white Gandalf type, the two other good wizards are Chinese and ambiguously brown (though coded as Middle Eastern by his costume). The movie also scores a couple of points on the gender front, with a badass female archer joining the quest and her gender never being called into question for it.
Unfortunately, however, this is undercut quite a bit by the other female character, Carolinus’s adoptive daughter Melisande (and yes, I really want to put an R in there every time I type it). Her only purpose in the film seems to be serving as a love interest. Not only does she have a love-at-first-sight plot with Dickinson, a trope I hate, but there’s an even ickier bit between her and the knight, Sir Orrin, that I’d completely forgot about. While relating his backstory to Dickinson, he tells about meeting Melisande for the first time when she was about five, and immediately vowing to fall in love with and marry her, “when she was old enough, of course.” Umm….how about no? In fact, can we just take that whole conversation and burn it, please?
As mentioned above, this movie is an amalgamation of two very different sources. One is a speculative non-fiction book called The Flight of Dragons, in which a biologist attempts to theorize how the standard mythological dragon traits (breathing fire, etc.) could have evolved to work biologically. The other is the fantasy novel by Gordon R. Dickson that I read in high school, in which a medieval history doctoral candidate and his fiancée get transported to a fantasy version of 13th century England, and he accidentally ends up in the body of a dragon.
The two have very little to do with each other, and are a fairly awkward fit together. Most of the Flight of Dragons content comes in a couple of scenes in the middle, where the narrative comes to a screeching halt while Dickinson learns how dragons work. I don’t know why they didn’t just adapt The Dragon and the George straight through, as they’ve already got about 80% of the plot present. Maybe they thought the character (called Jim Eckert in the book), wouldn’t be as relatable to the target kid audience if he was in his 30s with a fiancée? If that’s so, why then have the entire final confrontation hinge on Dickinson’s knowledge of science and mathematics, with him spouting off multiple theorems and equations in rapid fire? For being aimed at kids, there’s sure a lot of five dollar words being thrown around.
The movie is also incredibly dark for a kids’ movie. Not quite Don Bluth dark, but there was a lot higher body count than I was remembering. The final confrontation ends with a near total party kill, with only Dickinson surviving. Yes, they all got brought back at the end, but that doesn’t discount the scene of Sir Orrin literally getting set on fire, then slaying the evil dragon that did it while he burns to death. There’s also a scene where Dickinson-as-dragon and his elderly dragon mentor get incredibly drunk at an inn and sing drinking songs together, while Sir Orrin and Danielle the archer head off to a room holding hands after she proclaims it could be their last night alive. What was the last kid’s animated movie you saw with a pre-battle sexual hookup?
So I did enjoy this rewatch, but couldn’t help spending most of the running time comparing it to the book. It’s a pretty good kids’ movie (what nine-year-old wouldn’t want to turn into a dragon?), but I’d actually recommend anyone interested to actually skip the film – it’s pretty hard to track down at the moment, having only ever been released on DVD as a burn-on-request title from Amazon – and read the book instead. It’s got pretty much all of the scenes that this one does, plus a better ending (which is whited-out below for the spoiler-conscious).
-[spoilers for the much better ending from The Dragon and the George – highlight to read]: In the movie, Peter Dickinson rejects magic and returns to the 20th century, with the Princess Melisande deciding to join him. In the book, Jim Eckert, a soon-to-be-married academic trying to live on student loans and his fiancee’s teaching assistant salary, says “Screw that, I have a castle!” and stays in fantasyland. He becomes human again, and inherits the lands and title of an evil knight he’d defeated as a dragon. There are actually half a dozen more books, where he becomes a magical apprentice under Carolinus, learns to become a dragon at will, and is called into service fighting for the king against the French.
-They included pretty much every character from the book, except for my favorite: Welsh archer Dafydd ap Hwyel. I guess two archers would have been too much for them?
-There was talk a couple of years ago about making a live-action sequel to the movie, based on the second book in the series, The Dragon Knight. I’m sure it’s been dropped by now, since I would have heard something about it otherwise, but it’s something I wish had been picked up.