Lo these many Christmases ago, I received a wonderful book by Peter Dickinson called The Flight of Dragons. Gorgeously illustrated by Wayne Anderson, the book’s simple yet rigorously pursued conceit is the idea that dragons really existed. Dickinson sets out to show just how this could be, how they flew, how the fire breathing worked, and why there is no fossil record of their existence. In other words, Dickinson takes a hard SF approach to high fantasy, and the result is magical. Now, as part of its Archive Collection, Warner has resurrected a 1982 Rankin-Bass animated adaptation of the book.
Dickinson’s book doesn’t have a plot, as such. It is, after all, a piece of mock-scholarship. So film’s approach is to set a story in a world based on the one imagined by Dickinson. Dragons are still commonplace, but in the struggle between magic and logic, magic is losing. Fearing that it will die out completely (and thus do terrible damage to the world), Green Wizard Carolinus (voiced by Harry Morgan) along with his Yellow and Blue counterparts, plans to create the magical equivalent of a wildlife preserve, sealed off from the rest of the world. Standing in the way is evil Red Wizard Ommadon (James Earl Jones), whose magic remains powerful thanks to humanity’s sins. Ommadon must be defeated, but since the wizards are forbidden by Antiquity (the deity who runs the joint, who manifests as a talking tree not at all unlike the burning bush in The Ten Commandments) from taking direct action, humans must be recruited to perform a quest. The leader, Antiquity decrees, will be found in the future, and turns out to be none other than Dickinson himself (John Ritter), who, transported back in time, is tickled pink to discover that everything he has been dreaming and writing about is real.
There is clearly a great deal of affection for the book here, and the rather blimpy dragons are clearly modeled on Dickinson and Anderson’s designs. The simplistic art, however, compares most unfavorably to Anderson’s stunning illustrations, and the animation overall has that typical stillness of the budget-conscious effort, though it is a step or two above the usual television fare. The humour is a bit forced, too. Still, though it cannot measure up to its source material, its obvious love for that material makes this one hard to dislike, and the transfer is perfectly serviceable.