Don't get me wrong. The Air and Space Museum's great IMAX film "To Fly!" just about took the top off my head. And "The Dream Is Alive," a lyrical celebration of space flight, made me yearn for wings.

So I was ready to be thrilled at the premiere of "On the Wing," which was to show us "the wonder of flight in all its forms -- from birds and insects to kites and aircraft."

There were some marvelous moments, stunning shots of a soaring condor, water birds skating to a landing, the tracery of a dragonfly's translucent wing, the thunderous rush of a million bats flittering out of a cave.

But I have to report the picture itself never got off the ground.

Almost from the opening shot we were assaulted by a musical score as subtle as a fire engine, with deafening cymbal crashes and a bombastic, edge-of-doom style that was hopelessly wrong for its elegant subject.

To go with it, we had F. Murray Abraham of "Amadeus" fame narrating the kind of spiel that documentaries surely should have outgrown by now: unctuous as a toilet-paper commercial, awash in pomposities about "Man" and "Nature" delivered in the unnatural, overripe language of public relations, a language no human person ever spoke.

For some reason, IMAX films always have to have a bit of costume drama, a labored reenactment of some historical event. This one reenacts the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk . . . and it is very effective.

The inventors test models and big gliders and finally launch the motor-driven Flyer itself. For a few moments we sense the all but unbearable excitement of that first flight.

But just as we are about to see how it must have looked to Orville Wright when he soared at last, there is a shock cut to a jet careening through some canyons.

Now, the first time I saw this kind of shock cut and was suddenly taken on an almost sickening low-level flight at jet speeds, I loved it. But in 1986 it's a cliche'. A roaring cliche', I might add -- the sound goes clear off the track.

By far the best parts of this 32-minute movie by Francis Thompson and Bayley Silleck are the bird and insect sequences. Compared with that of the man-made craft, their flying is so graceful, so natural, so quiet that it is a physical relief to see them on the screen.

The fact that the filmmakers frequently had to reduce the screen or divide it into six parts for these tiny subjects makes me wonder whether this was a good idea for the five-story-tall IMAX in the first place.

All that said, "On the Wing" has many memorable shots, including footage of the Smithsonian's celebrated artificial pterodactyl (which is being pushed heavily at the museum shops, by the way). In one scene we seem to be riding on the back of a giant prehistoric dragonfly. Another shows the medieval birdman of Carcassonne, an early astronaut who built some wings and jumped off a tower.

We see him just after takeoff, and we know he will fall, yet for maybe one second, two seconds, he hovers in the air, wings gloriously spread, face alight with hope. That's the dream, that's what it's all about.

Here and in other scenes, notably a lovely hang-glider flight, the film appears to be getting ready to really sing. But every time, the shot is cut short. It's the conventional thing to do -- the TV generation, the 10-second attention span and so forth.

I can't believe people won't sit still for a whole minute, or even two, to watch a hawk in flight. Isn't that how we started? CAPTION: Pictures 1 through 3, Scenes from the Air and Space Museum's "on the Wing"; a drageonfly reenactment of the Wright brothers flight and the medieval birdsman of Carcassonne. (c) 1985, S.C. JOHNSON AND SON INC. AND SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION