Imagine a time before DVDs, before the Internet, before streaming services. A time when you had to go outside, and to your local video rental store if you wanted to watch a new movie. A time when here, in the UK, we had four television channels; cable did not exist. A time when phones were attached to your house, when kids played board games or video games with three maximum colours available.
Go into one of those video rental stores: endless lines of movie titles, wall-to-wall libraries of new and old, popular and downright obscure. As a kid there were recognisable films, scary looking films, and films you knew you probably shouldn’t be looking at.
As a kid I remember always gravitating to the same selection of VHS boxes on every visit. The murky, chipped plastic of the tape’s empty box, light but large in the hands of a six or seven year old. The sometimes sun-bleached coloured insert promising adventure and excitement. I remember a small selection of The Real Ghostbusters cartoon (the first cartoon that followed the original 1984 film).
Why am I telling you a sentimental backstory? Well, because sometimes a film doesn’t have (or need) a big studio name, star power, or cultural significance to warrant praise. Sometimes the film has that weird nostalgic pulse; a very personal resonance that only comes from watching it repeatedly at a very young age. You know the one, the reverberating shudder of excitement and an almost eerie pang of forgotten emotional investment.
The movie that does this for me, and did it again for me recently, is called The Flight of Dragons. A film which triggers such a personal nostalgia for me that I can forgive all of its failings and absurdities, to the point in which objectively recommending it to new viewers is impossible. A review of such a heart-fluttering nostalgia alone would do it a disservice. Instead, I offer this hopefully relateable story of childhood visions.
Released in 1982, and directed by Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin Jr. who also directed and released The Last Unicorn in the same year. The children’s animation is based off two books, one of the same name by Peter Dickinson and The Dragon and George by George R. Dickson. It shows us a magical – and even “historical” – world of wizards, fairies, monsters, and dragons. Here, there are four wizards who, while controlling various facets of the world, can see the beginnings of “the world of science”. Indeed, the film begins near enough with the unsettling imagery of a swan being crushed by a waterwheel! The Green Wizard, Carolinus, believes that creating a new and unseen world for all magical beings would save both worlds from destruction. However, the Red Wizard, Ommadon (voiced by none other than Darth Vader himself; James Earl Jones) wants nothing more than to witness mankind’s destructive prowess with science, so that he can rule the ruined world that they bring upon themselves.
With the wizards at war, and Ommadon controlling a vast “Flight of Dragons”, Carolinus is put on a path to find the one true hero who can save the world. This sees him time travelling, and scooping one Peter Dickinson (yes, the author of the book of the same name) a man who is obsessed with science and dragons equally. In fact… he is a colossal nerd.
What follows is a fish-out-of-water story, with Peter not only facing the terrors of the magical realm and saving the world, but falling in love with a beautiful princess, and body-swapping with an actual dragon! We have a host of characters such as Sir Orrin Neville-Smythe, a knight with a stiff upper-lip, Bryagh the evil dragon he has a rivalry with, and of course Gorbash, the dragon whose body Peter inhabits.
The film’s animation style is quite worn and dated. A lot of the faces (especially for humanoid monsters and background characters) can appear very similarly drawn, the animations themselves can appear stiff or repetitive. All things you would expect from an early 80s animated feature. But it is greatly entertaining nonetheless, and has a wonderful and soaring soundtrack to go with it.
It is filled with some great dialogue, and at times it is surprisingly intelligent for a children’s animation. Peter’s obsession with science has him constantly elaborating on how the magical realm works, specifically the dragons themselves (and you thought Reign of Fire was the first film to depict dragons “realistically”). These jargon-filled digressions along with some pretty creepy images, make the film not just suitable for kids in their colours and creatures but also offer something for adults too. Certainly, there are specific moments that will stick with me for my whole life!
Hopefully this little look back into the past has reminded you of The Flight of Dragons, and to tell you that there are still ways of getting copies of it. If not, then maybe this review has reminded you of bygone films!