The Flight of Dragons (1982)
What’s a better way to start off this column writing thing than talking about an obscure animated film that came out in 1982?
If you can raise your hand and actually say you’ve heard of this film, it’s probably because I’ve told you about it myself or you spent your childhood being babysat by a television.
So, why am I talking about it? Well, it’s mostly has to do with the people who helped make the film since the history of this movie is actually quite interesting and I feel is something most people won’t have known.
But before I get into the interesting stuff, I should at the very least get the basic plot of the film down so I can say I’ve “reviewed” it, and given a bit of understanding of the story.
It’s honestly nothing to write home about, the film is based on a novel of the same name by Peter Dickinson…who also is the star of this movie. Meaning, the main character’s name is Peter Dickinson. The actual Peter Dickinson does not star in this movie. That was more complicated than necessary, but whatever. Peter in this movie is a struggling young man who’s given up on a career of “science” to make fantasy role-playing board games. Except no one will mass produce his games, so he’s really quite rock bottom. Enter the wizard Cornelius, who makes himself known by possesing a pawn on his game board and bringing it to life. After sucking Peter down onto the board with him, Cornelius whisks Peter away to a magical world of dragons and knights and cute princesses.
From this point, Peter learns that because he’s a man of science, he must go on a quest to steal the crown that belongs to Cornelius’ evil brother in order to save all of magic. If that doesn’t really make sense, don’t think about it too hard, the movie does explain it, but it’s so obtuse doing it here would lengthen this piece considerably. The tl;dr version is that science needs magic to exist so science always has a source of inspiration to invent things. Fairies fly, so we make airplanes. That sort of thing.
The movie really, really wants to be Lord of the Rings though, so it introduces three other characters to go with Peter on the quest. A bumbling knight that’s clearly based on everything that is John Cleese, an older dragon that acts as the Gandalf of the party, and a younger dragon named Gorbash voiced by John Ritter that’s basically just John Ritter playing himself. Shenanigans ensue before the quest even begins however, and through kooky spellcasting Peter and Gorbash get merged. (Hey, look, some TF for all you scalie kinksters out there) Peter, now a dragon, obviously does not know how to be a dragon, so the plot takes a detour for him to figure out SCIENTIFICALLY how a dragon flies and shoots fire. (They’re basically blimps with electric contact wires embedded in the top of their mouth)
Once Peter knows how to be a dragon, the quest starts proper, and the film actually becomes sort of interesting. There’s plenty of draw from typical fantasy tropes, don’t expect anything new, but the film does a decent enough job of telling its story, even with the logic of the story being completely bonkers and making no sense. If you can roll with it, you’ll probably enjoy it a little bit, if not….you’ll probably want to throw something out a window.
With the plot out of the way, let’s move on to the more interesting bits. The studio that produced this film is Rankin/Bass. You may have heard of these people more for their popular christmas specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, The Little Drummer Boy, or Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town. You know, those little 20 minute specials that get played every single Christmas.
With the success of their holiday specials, Rankin/Bass turned to also making full 2D animated features. In 1977, it released The Hobbit and three years later released Return of the King. (If you’re wondering where the first two books are, you should look up the fun story of the film rights of those books. Because holy shit, it’s amazing) Rankin/Bass would end up only releasing a few more films before it moved on to making cartoon series (one of which is ThunderCats. Yes, that ThunderCats) and eventually burning out completely.
Now Rankin/Bass outsourced all of its animation to Japan for its 2D work to a few studios: Topcraft, Mushi Production, Toei Dogoa, and TCJ (Television Company of Japan). But our interest lies in only one of those studios, Topcraft. Topcraft was founded in 1971 by a man named Toru Hara and Topcraft quickly struck up a partnership with Rankin/Bass to handle the bulk of animation for Rankin/Bass 2D animation features. This little studio and its team of animators would be the ones responsible for the work seen in The Hobbit, The Return of the King, The Flight of Dragons, The Last Unicorn and a number of other projects Rankin/Bass would assign to them.
Sadly, this relationship did not last for very long and Topcraft entered bankruptcy by mid-1985. The studio was not done for, though, as two talented Japanese animators and one bright Japanese film producer saw an opportunity and bought it out, letting Toru Hara be its first manager as the three businessman quickly turned their newly bought studio into the hottest animation studio in Japan. Studio Ghibli. Yes, that Studio Ghibli.
That being said, most of the animators that worked at Topcraft were not initially with Studio Ghibli from the beginning. They formed another animation studio named Pacific Animation Corporation to continue working with Rankin/Bass on their cartoons. There were a number of them, but ThunderCats is the most well known. These animators were responsible for the iconic opening of the series and if you look closely at around the 54 second mark, you can clearly spot some iconic Ghibli design going on.
Once Rankin/Bass went under, the animators at PAC quickly transferred over to Ghibli where they churned out all those movies you’re all so fond of.
I should also mention that while Topcraft was a thing, they did primary animation for another film, this one being directed by Hayao Miyazaki himself. Just a small film, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Yeah, that film wasn’t actually made by Studio Ghibli. It was made before Studio Ghibli was even a thing, but it marks Miyazaki’s second feature length film (the first being The Castle of Cagliostro) so it’s very commonly mixed up. And since the people who worked on it went on to all join Studio Ghibli anyway, it’s really difficult to even care about the distinction at all.
So now you have a fair amount of knowledge of the history of Studio Ghibli and its origins. For the rest of the story, you need to go look at the histories of the three men who founded it, but at the very least you know where the animators who actually made the movies came from. And even more importantly, if you’re a die-hard fan of Studio Ghibli (like me) you now have a small library of content to work through to see everything these people have ever worked on. I think it’s neat watching old Rankin/Bass films and spotting small traces of what would become trademark signatures of Studio Ghibli.
The Flight of Dragons may not be a great film, or something I would normally recommend you watch even, but its connection to Studio Ghibli makes it a tad more special in my eyes. As does the rest of the Rankin/Bass collection. So, it may be very dated, the plot might not make much sense if you stop for two seconds, and its aesthetic might be difficult to appreciate, but it is the result of animators who would go on to make films like Kiki’s Delivery Service or My Neighbor Totoro and because of that, I strongly suggest giving it a look.
…If you can find it. It’s actually kind of difficult to track down, but I hear there are sites that could help you there. *awkward cough* You heard nothing from me.