The Flight of Dragons
During the 1970s and 80s there was a concerted effort in the West to produce quality fantasy works for the big screen, many of which followed the stereotypical “sword and sorcery” style that was so popular at the time, as well as being predominantly adult affairs like Conan, Beastmaster, Krull, Red Sonja, etc. Unfortunately, the majority of these movies were lacklustre to just plain kill-me-now efforts, and very few of them actually achieved any real degree of commercial success. However there were the exceptions to the rule as well, but these were viewed as the domain of children due to the fact that they were cartoons or similar (which clearly shows the western mindset towards any form of animation at that time).
Oh, how the times change …
Historically, aside from a few cartoons that were clearly aimed at adults (Fritz the Cat and such), there has generally been a very large gap between what the audience wanted and what they were being given. Occasionally there would come a movie that broke with Western traditions in some way: The Dark Crystal, Starchaser, The Black Cauldron, The Lord of the Rings trilogy (animated version), Heavy Metal, Labyrinth, The NeverEnding Story, and Fire and Ice to name a few. It’s interesting to note that Disney’s effort (The Black Cauldron), was a very clear indication that the audience was slowly maturing, and that we were no longer satisfied with the staid affairs like Mary Poppins and such, and thus the door was opened partway for anime like Laputa and Nausicaa, which in turn made it possible for Akira to break down the barrier and give the Western market what it wasn’t getting – mature, well written, animated movies where anything was possible.
Of the few, pre-Akira titles produced in the West, one stands shoulder to shoulder with the best of that time – The Flight of Dragons.
The movie is loosely based on the book by Peter Dickinson (which is also the name of the lead character), as well as taking inspiration from the novel “The Dragon and the George” by Gordon R. Dickson. The story is about a war between mages at a certain point in history and how a young man from the 20th century, Peter Dickenson, is summoned to fight for the forces of good. At first this may seem like another sword and sorcery extravaganza, however nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, swords and magicks abound in the movie, but the biggest surprise is the role that science plays.
The plot is constructed very well, especially for its time, and is a lot more advanced than many other “kids” movies that were available. One of the things that many find appealing about The Flight of Dragons is that the story doesn’t assume that the viewer is either a child or an idiot (unlike many, many Disney efforts), and although there are sections of the plot that could have been refined or clarified, the whole tale is easy to understand and, more importantly, easy to watch.
Art and animation are two big plus points for the movie, with much of the scenery being colourful and atmospheric. Given what was being produced in both the West and Japan at the time, this movie can be viewed as the Western equivalent of Ghibli in the styling and fluidity of its animation, however this may also be due to the fact that the animation directors were both Japanese as well.
The sound and music are of a very good standard, although the effects can, at times, be a bit over the top, but the trend with movies at the time was for the effects to be big and powerful, something that has become more refined as the years have gone by. The music is very much in keeping with the early 1980s, however this is both a good and a bad thing (as anyone who remembers 80 music can attest to). Overall the scenes with music work well, but there are, on occasion, some noticeable clashes between the what one hears and sees as well, and while this may only be a minor choreography issue, the flaws are noticeable enough to give some scenes an distinctly “off-kilter” feel.
On the plus side, the title track “The Flight of Dragons” is sung by Don McLean, and in all honesty, I much prefer it to “American Pie”.
As for characters, there is some effort at developing some of them, especially Peter, however most people will judge this movie by today’s standards, and it may be that people will consider the characters lacking in certain areas. Like many shows of that time though, the characters possess a certain “innocence” about them which they never really lose.
The Flight of Dragons is a movie that I have enjoyed as both a child and an adult, and even though I have a certain degree of nostalgia for it, I have never forgotten how enthralled I was when I first watched it so many years ago. This movie is one of the reasons I eventually became a fan of anime, and I will freely admit to a certain amount of bias where it is concerned. That said, this is a rare treasure of Western animation, and one that gave the audience something very different to the usual Disney fare.
So, will you enjoy it as much as I have? That’s up to you. The Flight of Dragons has been forgotten by many over the years, especially as anime has very much taken over now. That said, of you’re interested in something that has a slightly different take on the whole sword and sorcery theme, it wouldn’t hurt to give this a try.
After all, it’s not often that one can talk about a Western animated movie being in the same league as anime, is it?