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40 Years of Imaginative Delight with Figment

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Via-DisneyParksBlog

As part of The World’s Most Magical Celebration, 50 Years of Walt Disney World, countless visitors have enjoyed making memories by taking selfies with the golden statues of the Disney Fab 50 Character Collection. In EPCOT, one of the most popular photo spots in the World Celebration neighborhood has been beside the golden figure of Figment, the impish dragon who, since his official “birthday” of March 5, 1983, has been a beloved, literal embodiment of imagination and wonder.

Of course, dragons are nothing new to the world of imagination; myths, legends and fables involving all manner of these rambunctious reptiles span centuries and continents in origin. The traditional dragon’s most frequent role in folk and fairy tales tends to be that of an aggressive beast or a vindictive villain. Disney animation has certainly seen its share of dastardly dragons, although luckily there is generally a hero nearby to save the day.

Chip looks doubtful as Dale explains that a storybook dragon threatens their safety in "Dragon Around" (1954).
Chip looks doubtful as Dale explains that a storybook dragon threatens their safety in “Dragon Around” (1954).

In 1954, tiny chipmunks Chip and Dale tilted against what they thought was a fearsome dragon (which turned out to be a steam shovel operated by Donald Duck) in the short cartoon “Dragon Around.” There was no similar false alarm when Prince Phillip had to marshal the powers of truth, virtue and true love to defeat the evil fairy Maleficent in “Sleeping Beauty” (1959). Sixteen years after pronouncing a curse upon Princess Aurora, Maleficent transformed herself into a monstrous, flame-spewing dragon in an ill-fated, last-ditch attempt to prevent the inevitable happy ending.

Another such transformation occurred in “The Sword in the Stone” (1963) when eccentric enchantress Mad Madam Mim “cheated” in her Wizard’s Duel against Merlin. Doing battle by shape-shifting into adversarial animals, Mim broke the agreed-to ban on “make-believe things” and became a frowzy yet formidable dragon. Crafty Merlin defeated her by changing himself into the all but invisible germ “malagalee telopterosis,” which left Mim with spots, chills, fever, sneezes … and a defeated few weeks of bed rest ahead of her.

Even Mickey Mouse has had dragon troubles. In “The Brave Little Squire” (an episode of “The Wonderful World of Mickey Mouse” in 2020), Mickey parodied the fervor of his classic 1938 role as a valiant tailor to save the day when the steely bravado of pompous Sir Mortimer turned out to be merely tin. The resourceful mouse extinguished a fiery dragon’s flame with nothing but a spoon (and a nearby catapult)! In 2021, Mickey ran across yet another bad dragon, though this one was more a mischief-maker than a true danger. Farfus the dragon’s greatest offense (in a special installment of “Mickey Mouse Funhouse,” “Mickey the Brave”) is his inability to stop stealing pies … which when compared to the havoc wreaked by his more malevolent forebears, elevates him from “dastardly” to just “naughty” on the Disney dragon scale.

Two happy dragons: Elliott, seen on a napkin from the "Pete's Dragon" premiere party (1977), and The Reluctant Dragon, gracing a dragon-centric 1966 LP from Disneyland Records. (Author's collection)
Two happy dragons: Elliott, seen on a napkin from the “Pete’s Dragon” premiere party (1977), and The Reluctant Dragon, gracing a dragon-centric 1966 LP from Disneyland Records. (Author’s collection)

Happily, there are some laudable animated dragons to report on as well. In 1941, Disney audiences roared with laughter at the antics of “The Reluctant Dragon,” a cave-dwelling English aesthete who played the flute, wrote poetry and set a splendid tea table. Despite being described as having “the head of a camel, the neck of a crocodile and the ears of a cow,” a lovable dragon named Elliott endeared himself to one and all in the 1977 musical fantasy “Pete’s Dragon.” Elliott reunited sweethearts, gave baddies a comeuppance, and watched over an orphaned boy until he found a happy home. The dragon-as-guardian role was expanded further when the ancestors of “Mulan” (1998) declared that a great stone dragon be sent into battle to protect their disguised descendant. Due to circumstances beyond even their control though, the ancestors had to settle instead for Mushu, a slight but scrappy dragon. Though Mushu lacked size, there were fireworks when he was around! 

A tapestry map of Kumandra shows its distinctive dragon-shaped river, central to "Raya and the Last Dragon" (2021).
A tapestry map of Kumandra shows its distinctive dragon-shaped river, central to “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021).

The land of Kumandra, the setting of “Raya and the Last Dragon” (2021), featured five tribes named for their location along the region’s connective dragon-shaped river. The people of Fang, Heart, Spine, Talon and Tail once prospered together during the age of dragon magic. Years later, it fell to Princess Raya of Heart to try to unify the now-warring factions. She was aided in her quest by the discovery of Sisu, a playful water dragon and sole survivor of her powerful species. As they faced the future of their legacies, Raya and Sisu together learned not only the value of sacrifice but also the joy of friendship.

Whether smiling or smoldering, all of the Disney dragons have their fans. However, it is safe to say that the dragon with the most enduring fan base, and indeed the one most adored across all age groups, would be Figment.

“With A Spark of Inspiration…” This 1981 pre-opening EPCOT Center postcard features concept art from Walt Disney Imagineering. Upper image: Dan Goozeé, lower image: Andy Gaskill (note the early green version of Figment). (Author’s collection)

The dictionary defines a figment as something believed to be real but ultimately found to exist only in imagination. When the original Journey Into Imagination attraction opened, the five-month-old (then called) EPCOT Center found it had a new superstar who existed on both planes! The little dragon’s job was to bridge the gap between intangible and tangible, impossible and possible, and to be a surrogate for the child within everyone. Beneath the sparkling crystal pyramids of the attraction’s pavilion, anything was possible and as Figment’s wide eyes saw marvelous potentials in the arts and technologies, so did his new friends that rode along with him.

Serving as Figment’s host, companion, tour guide, mentor and playmate on the journey was Dreamfinder, an avuncular, bespectacled gentleman in a top hat and swallowtail coat with a red beard, twinkling eyes and an endless supply of enthusiasm. Dreamfinder’s 19th-century attire was echoed by his dream-gathering airship, the design of which owed as much to Victoria as it did to Verne. It was from within that vehicle’s fanciful framework that Figment first emerged, formed by a fortuitous combination of adorable features and insatiable curiosity.

“Catch A Dream…” This 1982 souvenir postcard introduced Figment and Dreamfinder as they “fly through the universe gathering sounds, shapes and colors.” (Author’s collection)

Figment learned and dreamed; he imagined his own future without limits, and invited everyone else to do the same. So appealing was the enthusiastic dragon’s sense of exploration that it wasn’t long until Disney Educational Media created a series of short films starring Figment. Available to schools nationwide, each title examined abstract subjects like sound, time and language. Figment’s enduring popularity has also resulted in his happy face adorning all manner of souvenir collectibles, and his purple, pear-shaped form has been sculpted into pewter, plush, porcelain and even popcorn buckets.

Today, Figment continues to intrigue his EPCOT audience, but at the same time, he has captured new fans as the star of his own comic book series! “Figment,” a title under the Disney Kingdoms banner, began its run in June of 2014, recounting adventures of the youthful Dreamfinder and the ageless dragon in their formative years. The first five-issue series proved so popular that a second was released the following year! These exciting comics confirm that imagination … and Imagineers … can be an endless source of possibilities. It is easy to hear Figment’s voice exclaiming loudly: “Wheeee! What’s next? What’s next?”

For Figment, it’s a cinch that what’s next after his first four decades includes not only more multi-media ways to delight Disney dreamers, but also more decades of inspiring and informing all who come to Walt Disney World, “The Most Magical Place On Earth,” during its second half-century.

Find all of the dragon-centric films mentioned above streaming now on Disney+

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