Monday, January 16, 2012

Fantasy Films and The Flight of Dragons

   I love lists. I have been working recently on a Latin poem, written in the early sixteenth-century that is essentially a 60-line list of diseases and medical afflictions which the poet wished on his enemies. It is great to know that time spent memorising Greek and Latin medical terminology is not in vain, of course, but there is also something about the list itself that is innately appealing. Lists of books, whether they boldly assert their status as ‘best of’ or whether they’re tagged merely as ‘recommended’, are a wonderful thing. Whether exploring a new genre the first thing I reach for is a list of bests, written by someone knowledgeable about the genre. I reveal in eccentric lists, and lists of books commended by writers I esteem: Jorge Luis Borges’s list, ‘A Personal Library’ is a personal favourite. Another favourite is Gary Gygax’s infamous ‘Appendix N’.
 
   On the other hand, I write lists with much trepidation—I rarely even attempt grocery lists. Even in the confines of a single subgenre, making a list of my favourite books is difficult. My tastes are too mutable to suit the assertive nature of the list. I recently tried to select a personal top twelve fantasy books and after many missteps, settled for a list of twelve ‘favourites’, with no qualifications of completeness or ultimate preferment. Yet even then I needed to insert a special category and make an honourable mention, bringing the list up to thirteen books. I had hoped for some originality in selection, but oddly, six of the books I selected are also on David Pringle’s list of the top 100 fantasy novels.

   I also wanted to create a list of my favourite fantasy films. This proved to be an even more taxing operation. In nothing am I further out of key than with film. Watching films, and often watching film-goers, I am apt to be an unsettled observer, studying the strange recreations of alien life forms. I observe pleasure, excitement, and sometimes evidence of learning and reflective thought. Its source is an unfathomable mystery. Glutted on CGI and other technologies, I see the insatiable fans of fantasy films stirred into frenzy, swallowing up the endless instalments of Hollywood’s fantasy franchises. I bring a book, perhaps a notepad, but fail to find any source for all this excitement.  

   There is an old complaint that ‘things were better when I was a kid’. As far as fantasy films go, this sentiment belongs at the bottom of the rubbish bin. As a fan of fantasy and a child in the eighties and early nineties, aside from a handful of cult classics, watching epic fantasy on film meant submitting to a plethora of fantastic cheeses, and cherishing every crumble of satisfaction. Since the pickings were poor, however, we made due. Neither film nor video game had then reached the quality of our imaginations, as was stimulated by reading. As a result, our imaginations did extra work watching these films: we had to explain away inconsistencies in the plots for ourselves; we had to pretend that monsters that looked like rubber puppets looked like monsters; and we had to forget that chainmail bikinis would chaff and pinch the skin raw. Enjoying many of films from these days, required this sort of imaginative work on part of the viewer. CGI now fills in this gap, though I believe that if most viewers tried, they could tell what scenes in, say Jackson’s trilogy, are real and which ones are CGI.
   When I was making my list of favourite fantasy films, however, there was one fantasy film that immediately came to mind: this was Rankin and Bass’s The Flight of Dragons (1982). The film was one of many animated fantasies to appear in the late seventies and early eighties, and I would offer the opinion that it is the best of them—or at least the best outside of Japan, which at this time produced animation of a higher craft. Rankin and Bass, grandmasters of the claymation Christmas, ventured first into animated fantasy with The Hobbit (1977), which they stuffed full of campy songs, elves that look like goblins and goblins who looked like cartoon Slaadi (the correct plural of Slaad, mind you). The second instalment of animated Tolkien was given in preferment to Ralph Bakshi.  Bakshi had proved his worth with his science fantasy, Wizards (1977), which merits something of its cult status and the tag, ‘They've Killed Fritz!’ resonates still in odd circles. Bakshi’s next work, The Lord of the Rings (1978) ruined Tolkien’s masterpiece with rotoscoping, and like the Star Wars Christmas Special, is reserved for fanatical collectors and those who watch it in order that they can then tell more fanatical fans that they have done so, and thus win their respect.  

   Bakshi’s third work Fire and Ice (1983) more or less did to Conan-type fantasy, what he had previously done to Tolkien—though this film has its admirers. Rankin and Bass then returned to Tolkien with The Return of the King (1980) which finishes off what Bakshi had started, with violence terrible and vile. Lest we forget, to this era belong two more enjoyable fantasy book adaptations: The Secret of NIMH (1982) and The Black Cauldron (1985). Also belonging here is the not-so-good science fiction cum-light-sword (reminiscence of another franchise, but which?), The Starchaser: The Legend of Orin (1985). Heavy Metal (1981) must be added here, though like Saladin in Dante’s limbo, this film proudly stands alone, and seems an object apart from these other animations. 

   For their next animated fantasy, however, the Rankin/Bass pair, managed what Bakshi could never do, and improved on their last project. Their next effort, The Last Unicorn (1982), which adapted Peter S. Beagle’s novel of the same title, is full of charm, though better viewed through the lens of childhood. The animation for this film was done by Topcraft. Topcraft went out of business in 1984, but the bulk of animators they employed joined forces with Hayao Miyazaki to form Studio Ghibli, and later worked on the animated masterpiece, Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. Rumours abound that The Last Unicorn is returning to theatres this year (no doubt digitally enhanced), which says something to the durability of this film.
   Yet Rankin/Bass had another animated fantasy left in them, and their next film The Flight of Dragons (1982), improved still on their earlier efforts. The film Flight of Dragons adapts two books: the plot and the meat of the matter are based on Gordon R. Dickson’s novel The Dragon and the George, while the title and some supplementary material on dragon lore are taken from Peter Dickinson’s book The Flight of Dragons. The hero of the film is not the Dickson’s college lecturer, Jim, but Peter Dickenson himself, presented as a twentieth-century ‘man of science’ and a amateur developer of board games. In the book, the damsel-in-distress is the Jim’s kidnapped fiancée, while in the film she is a princess from the fantasy world, and she is not kidnapped. The film starts with the hero Peter Dickinson transported into a medieval world of magic where he must quest to retrieve the red crown of Ommadan from an evil wizard, whose voice actor is the same fellow who played Darth Vader. To help Peter on his quest, the good wizards provide him with a respectable kit of magical artefacts and a miscellaneous band of adventurers pop in to help him on his way. Due to an accident of magic, Peter unfortunately takes on the body of the dragon Gorbash before the quest even begins. I don’t want to ruin the plot but there is some originality in the band of adventurers (derived from Dickson’s book) and the adventures are curious and unusual enough to enable enjoyment. The nomenclature is decent; humanoids get medieval-sounding names: Princess Melisande, for example, pronounced not as in Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande, but to rhyme with British ‘sand’. Beasts get almost-onomatopoeic names, as in Aragh, who is a wolf. The monsters are well-conceived, well-drawn, and thankfully, not too cartoonish. Sandmerks are a clever original: if you see one, perchance, start singing Sumer Is Icumen In in Middle English or prepare to have your mind boiled. The fantasy is high, not low, but not too Tolkien.
   The backdrop of the film is set around an existential conflict between magic and logic in the minds of man, with magic faltering as science and logic achieve dominion. As a medievalist I could object to the implicit view that the middle ages were a world of magic or superstition; a view with little credence among scholars but which perniciously lingers in popular teleology. Scientists might likewise object the view that magic (representing beauty and wonder) is dispelled by logic and scientific inquiry. But the film gets the ball rolling and it is nice to see some depth, where it does not detract from the fantasy adventure by getting overly (or overtly) preachy. From Dickinson’s book The Flight of Dragons, there is some pseudo-natural history explaining how dragons could have existed (I have always fancied this and entertained thoughts of writing my own natural history of fantastic creatures, explaining their existence though the guise of a pseudo-biological study). This element then plays in to the Peter’s of rationalising the magical world around him.
   The best of its breed, the hand-drawn animation of The Flight of Dragons is a long way from the achievements of the fantasy film of the last ten years. Those glutted on CGI might find its offerings too skimpy to sate their palates. But those interested in the genre, or who want to see what the fantasy films of a older generation have to offer, would not go too far a miss to start with this film. And those who have seen it in a bygone age might be surprised that after thirty years, this film has not lost all of its lustre.

No comments:

Post a Comment