Total Recall: The Golden Compass and Kids in Fantasyland

Another world is possible: The Flight of Dragons, Alice, and The Pagemaster.

After a series of delays and personnel changes, the first part of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass, arrives in theaters this Friday. Starring Nicole Kidman, Eva Green, Daniel Craig, and newcomer Dakota Blue Richards, Golden Compass serves as an introduction to a sprawling ambitious story of daemons, polar bear fights, and parallel worlds. Let's take a look at some other fantasy flicks of its ilk that have come before it.

Like the Narnia chronicles, the Harry Potters, Bridge to Terabithia, and the upcoming Spiderwick Chronicles, the His Dark Materials trilogy joins a spate of young adult entertainments whose characters discover extraordinary worlds beyond their own. To us, the appeal of these alternative worlds, parallel universes, and lands long gone from existence is obvious. When children are cultivated for education from infancy (curse you, Baby Einsteins!) and material distractions crop up on a daily basis, who wouldn't want their inner fantabulist entertained?  Though discovering new worlds is hardly a new enterprise (remember your first Trip to the Moon?), we'll start in the 1980s when children's and medieval fantasy ruled the theaters.

In 1982, Alan Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass released two animated fantasy movies. One of them, The Last Unicorn (50 percent on the Tomatometer), eventually hit cult classic status and earlier this year got the deluxe DVD treatment. The other film, The Flight of Dragons, wasn't quite as lucky and languishes in overpriced VHS purgatory. Based on the book of the same name by Peter Dickinson and The Dragon and the George by Gordon Dickson, Flight spins the yarn of a scientist named Peter who spends his nights designing and hocking board games before being transported 770 generations into the past where magic is beginning to weaken. There, Peter meets wizards, princesses, and dragons identical to the pieces he's designed for his latest board game.

Fantasy stories hosts plenty of tug-of-wars between technology and magic, but The Flight of Dragons takes this motif to a peculiar extreme. As a man well-versed in logic and science, Peter attempts observing how a world of magic works and the film gives a lengthy biology lesson on how dragons fly. (Indeed, The Flight of Dragons book is written as a cross between speculative fiction and natural history guide.) While characters in books and films like these are willing to be instantly awed by new worlds, Peter (admittedly something of a wet blanket) always buckles down for the truth, becoming a sort of messiah offering the gift of logic.


The Flight of Dragons opening.

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