In the overall realm of Disney magic, Pete's Dragon is a card trick rather than a grand illusion.

James Plath's picture

Some films grow on you. Others start to weigh like a growth, or a scruffy beard and dirty clothes that you just can't wait to shed--like the four hillbillies that young Pete is trying to escape in this 1977 film. Ma Gogan (Shelley Winters) and her louse-spouse and two grown sons paid $50 for the little orphan, and have apparently been working him harder than a character in a Dickens' novel. Unfortunately, an opening number featuring the filthy foursome trying to coax "Petey" to come out of hiding so they can catch him just isn't all that entertaining. But the damage is done, the tone is set, and it's a slower-paced broad comedy that follows.

Though "Pete's Dragon" cost $4.5 million more than "Mary Poppins" to make, the results aren't nearly as satisfying. The blend of live action and animation isn't as delightful, the smile-challenged "villains" are more annoying than threatening, the side plots aren't any stronger than the main narrative thread, and, apart from the Academy Award-nominated "Candle on the Water" sung by Grammy winner Helen Reddy ("I am Woman"), the songs are completely forgettable. Even the comic presence of Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, and Jim Backus doesn't help. Which is why I find myself enjoying the film less each time I watch it.

"Pete's Dragon" hasn't aged well, either. The animated figures and green screen work seem clumsy compared to "Mary Poppins," and the characters, plot, and scenic construction seem a little lackluster. There's no spark here, and not as much magic as you'd expect. The characters seem ordinary, and the tugs on the heartstrings are all too obvious.

It's a period film set around the turn of the century in Maine (though it was filmed in California). Pete and his cartoon dragon, Elliott (voiced by Charlie Callas), wander into the quaint little town of Passamaquoddy, where Pete's dragon causes trouble and it falls to the local lighthouse keeper, Nora (Reddy), to help and befriend him. As in another Disney film, "Darby O'Gill and the Little People," the father of the female lead is the town drunk. In this case, he's played by the feisty Rooney, who does his best to make the pratfalls and misunderstandings (people think he's responsible for the mischief that Pete's mostly invisible dragon causes) play for dragon-sized laughs. It's all very over-the-top, which isn't bad in itself. But it's not all that funny. Nor are the added villain-a snake-oil peddler named Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale)--and his toady sidekick, Hoagy (Buttons)--who hear about the dragon and convince the whole town to go along with their plan to capture the beast--for monetary gain, of course.

"Pete's Dragon" remains Helen Reddy's biggest role, and while she acts like a guest star on "Sesame Street," it's her warm and winning personality that's the "candle on the water." Would that there were more characters like her in this film, which seems all too sadly by-the-numbers. The overall tone is more corny than campy, and that's a surprise, considering that the director is Don Chaffey, who previously gave us "Jason and the Argonauts" and "One Million Years B.C.," and afterwards cranked out a dozen episodes of "Charlie's Angels."

Along the way we're treated/subjected to songs like "The Happiest Home in These Hills," "Boo Bop Bopbop Bop (I Love You Too)," "I Saw a Dragon," "It's Not Easy," "Passamashloddy," "There's Room for Everyone," "Every Little Piece," "Brazzle Dazzle Day," and "Bill of Sale." There are no surprises. What you see is what you get, and what you expect is what you see. When we're told that Nora's pining over her seafaring husband who's never returned, and everyone in town thinks he's lost at sea, we pretty much know from the tone and trajectory of this little film that he may not be a goner.

This "High-Flying Edition" of "Pete's Dragon" doesn't look appreciably different from the previous release. The dragon is still grainy, and animation edges clumsily intrude on live-action backgrounds. Generally speaking, the live action fares better than the animation, which isn't nearly as clean and crisp, nor are the colors as rich as one would hope. The publicity stills are actually sharper than the screenshots, which is a rarity. "Pete's Dragon" is presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio.

Though the soundtrack is a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, it's a substandard soundtrack that feels sonically flat. There's no distortion, but there's no zest either, and no richness of sound. Middle tones dominate, rather than a full range of bass and high treble notes.

The bonus features are only slightly better. The main extra is "Brazzle Dazzle Effects: Behind Disney's Movie Magic," which is a 25-minute making-of feature that gives you a fairly standard overview of Disney's foray into blended live-action and animation, and a look at "Pete's Dragon" with a vintage-era Marshall handling the narration. Aside from that, though, it's all small stuff. There's an art gallery of stills and production photos and concept art, a 12-minute retro pop medley of songs from the film, a seven-minute piece on "Original Demo Recordings" of "Brazzle Dazzle Day" and two other songs, a two-minute original song concept for "Boo Bop Bopbop Bop (I Love You Too)," a "Where's Elliott?" game that offers a dragon video as a prize, and a deleted storyboard sequence that also runs in the two-minute range. Rounding out the bonus features are a couple of trailers, a 1946 cartoon short ("Lighthouse Keeping"), a few snippets on Disney and its animators, and that's it. There's nothing stunning here, but for fans it's better than nothing. Those who own the Gold Collection DVD may think twice about replacing it, though, because missing-in-action is a live-action and animation blend on the Loch Ness monster that appeared in the earlier DVD.

Bottom Line:
There are sweet scenes, sure, and the family moments with Nora, her father, and Pete are satisfying enough. But in the overall realm of Disney magic, "Pete's Dragon" is a card trick rather than a grand illusion.


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