pete's dragon 


By Bill Kallay

Unlike today, where there seems to be an animated movie released every week, it wasn't common to see animated movies in the 1970s. Sure, there were the occasional Disney classic re-releases and occasional features done at other studios (mostly independent). But the animation well was nearly dry. "Pete's Dragon" was perfectly suited to bridge the gap of animation and live action movies for kids.

"Pete's Dragon: High Flying Edition" is now available on DVD.

I seem to remember there was a lot of excitement about "Pete's Dragon." My friends had all seen it. I hadn't, nor had I seen Disney's "The Rescuers" earlier that year. My little imagination was caught up in "Star Wars." But it was neat to see an animated green dragon befriend an orphaned boy (Shawn Marshall), and so did my friends. Even though we were all growing up fast with "Star Wars," and the occasional R-rated movie our parents would let us see, Disney still had a spot in our hearts. My friends said it was a cool movie. I'd have to wait to see it.

I didn't see the movie until years later on VHS, and admittedly, I didn't like it much. The crudeness of the animation wasn't quite up there with the Disney classics. The story and songs weren't enough to catch my interest. I couldn't understand what my friend's were talking about. This movie wasn't all that wonderful. Then I had to step back and realize I was a lot older and the movie's magic wouldn't work for me. Plus it was released during the 1970s and had a very '70s vibe to it. If there was ever a Disney movie rooted in a time warp, this was it.

Disney has re-released the film again. It's been a studio standard on home video for so long, I'm sure that most people might have a copy on VHS, LaserDisc or DVD somewhere in their collection. I never did, so it was high time I got a copy for review.

The plot is cute enough, and perhaps had the possibility to be endearing enough. An orphan is trying to escape from his step family, lead by a scary looking Shelley Winters, with his pet dragon, Elliot. He comes into a coastal town with a nearly impossible name to pronounce, and meets a young lighthouse keeper played by Helen Reddy and her drunken but fun father, Lampie (Mickey Rooney). Before you know it, everyone is singing and dancing for almost no reason at all. Elliot is told to sit in a cave while Pete tries to get into school and he's pretty much forgotten as a crucial part of the movie. In the meantime, Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale) & Hoagy (Red Buttons) come sailing into town trying to sell their magical potions. Indeed, the story is all over the place for 129-minutes.

What could've been a classic film is marred by a few miscues. "Mary Poppins" this is not. The relationship between Pete and Elliot is played for cuteness rather than true emotion. As I watched this film, I was reminded of the story on "E.T.," which came out a few years later. In both stories, a boy is lonely and his only real companion is an odd creature. Other than a few short scenes together, Pete and Elliot spend most of their time away from each other. And when they're with each other, nothing much really happens. It is a compliment to the filmmakers who blended live action photography with animation, something Disney was an expert at. But we're never caught up in their friendship.

Once Pete makes it to town (I won't even try and spell the name here...Passmaquatty...Passamadoo...), he's surrounded by a bunch of singing sailors and school children. This is all fine for a musical fantasy, but the music and musical numbers don't stick with you. With the exception of the Helen Reddy friendly "Candle on the Water," and perhaps "It's Not Easy," the songs fall flat. 

The Disney of today is a lot different from Disney in 1977, so it must've been a coup for the studio to get Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney, and Red Buttons to star. The studio wasn't really a major player in the film business when it came to luring big time stars. There were a few exceptions when Walt would hire Kirk Douglas or Julie Andrews. But for the most part, the studio stuck with a small but talented acting roster. One could count on seeing Dean Jones or a young Kurt Russell in a Disney film more than Brando or Pacino. With "Pete's Dragon," the studio branched out to get the stars. Unfortunately, Helen Reddy was already on the down slope after scoring a big 1970s hit song with "I Am Woman." Her screen presence didn't exactly set the world on fire. Mickey Rooney & Red Buttons were actors from a bygone age. Hardly the most hip casting around. For Disney in the mid-70s, this was as good as it got.

The film represents a transition for the studio, bridging its old animation unit with a new one. The combination of live-action photography with animation and visual effects was old hat for the studio. They'd been masters on all fronts doing just that. The old time animators were retiring or had passed away. "The Rescuers" was really the swan song for the remaining "Nine Old Men." Animator Ken Anderson stayed on to create Elliot, and he's a fine character. Don Bluth, who would leave Disney with a few other young animators in 1977, directed the animation. The animation for the time was fine, but it wasn't the style audiences were used to with Disney. It certainly has Bluth's signature style.

The visual effects and production design are excellent. The town is nicely designed and could've actually made for a neat Disneyland attraction had the film done better at the box office. The visual effects, with the exception of some obvious wire work, are true Disney. They're a lot of fun to see. Harrison Ellenshaw's matte work is naturally impeccable. 

For the time it was released, "Pete's Dragon" was probably good family entertainment. It managed to stay around all these years as a home video staple, and Elliot has been a favorite float in Disneyland's Electrical Parade. For my generation, it was about the only major Disney film released at the time that seemed to make an impression. Today's kids, like mine, don't care for it. I'm sure somewhere in the halls of Disney, someone is conjuring up ways to bring Elliot back to the big screen. This time, in CGI.   

Special thanks to Click Communications

Photos: © Disney. All rights reserved.


Perennial "classic" comes back again on home video

Director: Don Chaffey

Cast: Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Sean Marshall, Shelly Winters   

Visual effects featurette and more


Picture: Very Good
Sound: Good

Aspect Ratio (1.66:1)

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August 18, 2009

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