The Flight of Dragons movie: Magic versus science
Editor’s note #1: This article contains spoilers about The Flight of Dragons movie.
Editor’s note #2: This article uses many audio clips from The Flight of Dragons. To fully appreciate this article, listen to the podcast or use the above audio player.
By Andy Kaiser
Article ID: 1345
“Look down there, Gorbash my friend. On that troubled earth below us, confusion and chaos reign. All mankind is facing an epic choice. A world of magic, or a world of science.
Which will it be?”
The movie “The Flight of Dragons” begins with that brief monologue, spoken by wizard to dragon. The rest of the movie answers the question while providing great entertainment.
When I say “entertainment”, though, I don’t mean all sunshine and flowers. The next scene in the movie is of a swan, paddling down a river. A few tiny fairies hop on the swan for a ride. Suddenly, in the river ahead, there appears a gigantic waterwheel, spinning fast to power a mill in a nearby house. The swan can’t escape the waterwheel’s current, and swan and fairies are sucked underneath and killed.
Here we have an eerie visual of one of the movie’s themes: Magic versus science. Will one destroy the other? Which one? Can they possibly coexist?
“The Flight of Dragons” takes place in a world of magic – where wizards ride dragons as casual transportation, where magic does exist – and it’s powerful – but it bows to the will of science.
The movie is primarily about a quest involving four wizard brothers. Three are good. One is bad. You may recognize the evil red wizard “Ommadon” as voiced by James Earl Jones, also the iconic voice of Darth Vader.
The wizards argue whether or not they and their world can coexist with magic.
One wizard proposes building “The Last Realm of Magic”, in order to hide from the physical world and safeguard what magic remains. The evil wizard Ommadon disagrees.
This scene is even more powerful and takes on more meaning when you see it with the video. Those last words, where Ommadon says, “I’ll teach [Man] to fly like a fairy!” are spoken to a visual of a slowly spinning nuclear bomb.
“The Flight of Dragon” movie’s main plotline is simple – in order to stop Ommadon, the good wizards try to steal his magical crown, the source of all the red wizard’s power.
Peter Dickinson and The Flight of Dragons
Yet, the surrounding themes are not so simple. To find a hero, the wizards are told by an oracle to recruit an unusual choice: the long-distant relative of “Great Peter, the Dragonmaster”, seven hundred and seventy-seven generations removed from the original. Why this particular descendant? Because, the oracle says, this man is the first of the decendents who is a man of science.
Later, this comes in very important.
The man is Peter Dickinson. He lives in the late twentieth century. We see a flash-forward to the future – it appears to be the late 1970s or so, which makes sense – the movie was released in 1982. We see Peter Dickinson talking to a pawn shop owner, and find that not only is Dickinson a dragon fanatic, he’s also written a book, called “The Flight of Dragons”.
Here’s a spot where this supposed kid’s movie breaks convention. There really is a Peter Dickinson. He really does love dragons. He really did write a book called “The Flight of Dragons”, in which he attempts to show how dragons could’ve existed, flew and breathed fire. We get to see this detail in the movie, as our hero analyzes dragons and develops a scientific theory of how dragons fly!
Through some magical hijinks, Dickinson is transported into a dragon’s body and mind, and there he remains for most of the movie. It’s fun watching him try to figure out dragon-flight and dragon-life, and it gives the magical quest a new level of difficulty.
While “The Flight of Dragons” book is non-fiction, the movie is very close adaptation, and not just in the book’s subject matter. The artwork, particularly the background images, the wizards’ towers, the dragon designs, they all pay homage to the book itself.
The showdown between magic and science
If you remember only one thing from this movie, it will be the ending. Never before have I seen the battle between science and magic fought so well, and so literally.
There is a final showdown between the scientist Dickinson and the evil wizard Ommadon.
It starts off as the audience discovers how Dickinson managed to escape from his dragon body.
(James Earl Jones, by the way, has the best evil laugh you’ll ever hear.)
Then the final battle begins. Ommadon transforms into a disgustingly hideous multi-headed combination of man and dragon. He taunts Dickinson, saying that he’s so powerful, he can even “reach into the sky and pluck down the sun”. Dickinson – and science – disagree.
Then Ommadon pulls out the big magical guns and begins to chant some Latin-sounding incantations. He attacks Dickinson, who responds with a lethal counter-attack with science and logic.
And, it’s over. Almost. What “The Flight of Dragons” teaches us is that magic isn’t gone. Science hasn’t destroyed it, because we’ve taken magical concepts and – through technology – turned them into reality.
Another point is that unquantifyable things – things like emotions and imagination and dreams – those are magic. Knowing how or why something works doesn’t take away its magic. In fact, I’d argue one appreciates it all the more.
The movie works on multiple levels. We have a children’s adventure tale, about a magical quest, clearly defined good and evil and, of course, dragons.
There’s another level, one that warns against the dangers of science, how technological advancement leads to abuse and increased evil. (It’s interesting to note that the Ommadon character does some pretty horrific things himself, all with magic, not science.) Magic, the movie alludes, could be just another tool. It’s not about science or magic being inherently good or evil. It’s about the person using it.
Yet another level talks about humankind’s motivation to improve itself. Why do we advance ourselves? Is it fear of the unknown? Do we seek to fight and conquer that which scares us? Or is it more altruistic and less egotistical, and is a desire to use technology to make life better?
The animation in “The Flight of Dragons” is of the pre-computer, hand-drawn kind, done by Rankin-Bass productions. They also animated the 1977 version of “The Hobbit”, and created perhaps the most famous holiday special of all time, the stop motion “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”. The screenwriter for all these – including “The Flight of Dragons” – was a talented man named “Romeo Muller“. Sadly, he died in 1992, and I’m unable to find much information about him.
The movie “The Flight of Dragons” is very distinctive and visually is done very well. In the many action scenes, or even the incendental scenes, the music is powerful and memorable. The movie’s theme song is sung by Don McLean, the artist who wrote the classic song “American Pie”. You’ve got James Earl Jones as the bad guy, John Ritter as the good guy, and other voice talents who play their parts perfectly.
I was too young to fully appreciate this movie when it came out, and I have no idea how popular it was back in the 1980s. Since I never hear it mentioned today, I assume it faded quietly into animation history. It shouldn’t, though. The Flight of Dragons movie – like its theme of magic being tied to mankind itself – can not and should not be allowed to disappear.
Where can you find “The Flight of Dragons”? The original is long out of print. For my own copy, I was lucky enough to record it from TV to VHS when I was a kid, and have since copied that recording to DVD. The rest of you are in luck, though: Clips of the movie are online in the usual places, as well as the full movie itself, though I’m guessing most of those full movie distributions are illegal. But for the purists, by the time this article is published, “The Flight of Dragons” will be re-released by the Warner Brothers “Warner Archive” brand. That means we can legally purchase the DVD, so yes: The Flight of Dragons DVD is available for purchase!
If you’re going to show “The Flight of Dragons” to children, be aware there are scary scenes with scary creatures. Yes, there is death – several of the main characters die – and not all of them are magically resurrected.
It’s a strange but inevitable thing: as I get older, I still watch movies and read books, but I have a harder and harder time suspending my disbelief. I have no such problem with The Flight of Dragons. It’s a world of magic, yet it’s believable because it still follows the rules of physics. It has great characters, all of them unique and engaging. It’s got a complex plot and adult themes, yet still, in the end, is a great adventure.
At the beginning of the movie, “The Flight of Dragons” says, “A world of magic, or a world of science. Which will it be?”
If we allow “magic” to evolve beyond superstition, beyond the unexplained, beyond what the movie calls “mere illusion”, the answer doesn’t have to be one or the other. Science or magic? No. We can have both.