Even to contemporary animation fans caught up in the neverending sea of anime, the Rankin-Bass brand is both familiar and holy. Best-known to the majority of the masses as the company which produced two of the most iconic perennial holiday treats ever made ‒ Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Frosty the Snowman ‒ Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr.'s love for family-friendly fantasies stretched beyond the borders of commercialized Christmases. In fact, they were the fellers responsible for the original animated versions of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit and Return of the King in the late '70s and early '80s ‒ neither of which would have existed were it not for the hard work of outsourced Japanese animators.
Another Rankin-Bass production from the early '80s ‒ The Flight of Dragons ‒ which has recently been given the chance to soar once more thanks to the Warner Archive Collection. Based on Peter Dickinson's speculative history book of the same name, but with most of the actual plot lifted from Gordon R. Dickson's The Dragon and the George, this 1982 fantasy was ‒ much like its Tolkien adaptation predecessors ‒ manufactured thanks to some Japanese animators for hire. The film also takes place in a distantly-removed time and place on Earth where (slightly obsese) dragons exist and magic rules, and features a good (if small this time) cast of talented old-school voice actors grabbing an easy paycheck.
Taking the reins of these Dragons is none other than Col. Sherman T. Potter himself, Harry Morgan, as a peaceful green (boy, he just couldn't ditch those army fatigues, could he?) wizard named ‒ get ready for it ‒ Carolinus. Determined to save a fraction of the changing world where magic is being overtaken by science, Carolinus is forced to venture into the future to seek out an unlikely savior: a 20th Century Boston scientist-cum-game-designer named Peter Dickinson (as voiced by the one and only John Ritter). In what could be the freakiest Friday of all time, Carolinus brings Dickinson back in time, only to accidentally merge the brainy hero-to-be with one of the Green Wizard's domesticated house dragons.
Meanwhile, evil Red Wizard Ommadon ‒ brought to life by the voice of Darth Vader himself, James Earl Jones ‒ opts to destroy humans by turning them into the very sort of stupid science-fearing schmucks we have running the country today. So, Peter the Dragon teams up with a ragtag motley crew of dragons, pompous British knights, wolf-beasties, little people, and an archer chick to defeat Ommadon and The Flight of Dragons. Among the other voices cast in this feature-length flick are Beneath the Planet of the Apes alumni James Gregory (in two roles) and Victor Buono. Larry Storch, Don Messick, Bob McFadden, Nellie Bellflower, and the great Paul Frees also lend their vocal talents.
While a theatrical debut may have been planned, The Flight of Dragons went direct-to-video in 1982 (right in the midst of the magnificent home video boom of the time) before making its television premiere as an ABC Saturday Night Movie four years later. In the years that have followed, the Rankin-Bass classic has garnered the attention (if not admiration) of animation lovers near and far, making this unexpected Warner Archive Blu-ray release all the more important to fans. Sporting a folky theme song by singer Don McLean (who presumably took the gig because everybody had grown sick and tired of hearing "American Pie"), the film arrives in HD via an MPEG-4 AVC 1080p encode.
Presented in a somewhat perplexing matted 1.78:1 widescreen aspect ratio (a TV of video production of the time would be displayed in 1.33:1), The Flight of Dragons undoubtedly looks better here than it ever has anywhere else. That said, the image is unlikely to blow any High-Definition video snobs away, but that should really be expected, given the origin of the production and the (forgive me) "antiquated" animation techniques employed therein. It certainly looks a lot better than the slightly alternate 4x3 Standard-Definition TV version of the movie, which is included as the disc's sole special feature. Optional English (SDH) subtitles accompany the main feature, as does an above average DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono soundtrack.
Personally, I'm not into animation. Nor am I a big believer in magical fantasies such as The Lord of the Rings movies. It's nothing personal, mind you; these two film and TV genres simply aren't my cup of tea. Having said that, I must confess I didn't wander off (physically or mentally) too much when I finally managed to force myself to put on The Flight of Dragons. I gave it my best shot, and I made it. For the most part. Were it not for the expert voices used in the film, however, I doubt I would have succeeded, so please take that useless bit of information into consideration if youaren't well-versed in literary worlds of fictional mythology or anything that isn't live-action, either.
If nothing else, hearing M*A*S*H's Colonel Potter (there's a J.K. Rowling joke in there somewhere, I'm sure) say the word "magic" over and over like he's doing a low-rent impersonation of Orson Welles should warrant your summoning this little forgotten fantasy up. To say nothing of the fact you essentially get Col. Potter enlisting the help of Jack Tripper to defeat Darth Vader here.
Needless to say, you can't not recommend The Flight of Dragons for those reasons alone.