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.” But after this film he went totally campy and cranked out a dozen episodes of “Charlie’s Angels.”
In “Pete’s Dragon” 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. It all feels way to facile, and the fact that my kids have never liked it tells me that the film indeed hasn’t aged well.
This “35th Anniversary Edition” Blu-ray of “Pete’s Dragon” is a mixed blessing. This film was always a little rough looking, but in HD the live action looks phenomenal. Maybe too phenomenal, because now we’re even more painfully aware of the green screen work. Backgrounds look even phonier, and the dragon, which has always seemed grainy with uncertain edging, stands out like a slightly blurry sore thumb—so much so that I’m frankly a little worried about what “Mary Poppins” will eventually look like when it comes to Blu-ray. We saw the same sort of thing happen with some of the Ray Harryhausen films. High definition made the effects and green screen work seem less seamless and stand out more, as they do here. So I wouldn’t be too quick to get rid of that DVD of yours, if you’re a fan of this title. You might actually prefer it.
Like the DVD release, “Pete’s Dragon” on Blu-ray is presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio, and it fills out the entire 16×9 screen. I saw no artifacts or compression problems as a result of the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer except for some scrubbing around the edges of some heads—an obvious attempt to soften some of the noise that can pop up on grainy neutral-colored backgrounds.
But as I said, the problem is how GOOD the high-def transfer is, because it makes the computer animated dragon look pale and clumsy compared to the wonderfully detailed live action figures, objects, and even many of the backgrounds. It’s so good that it exposes the special effects and almost destroys the illusion.
“Pete’s Dragon” has always had a flat-sounding soundtrack, and this English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio corrects the problem with a fuller audio and clear dialogue and crisp musical numbers. There’s an additional audio option of French Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH and French.
The main extra, aside from a DVD of the film, is a carry-over from the earlier DVD: “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 the deleted storyboard sequence “Terminus & Hoagy Hunt Elliott” and an original demo recording set to story sketches for Pete singing “Boo Bop Bopbop Bop (I Love You Too) to Elliott. That appears on the DVD, too.
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. “Darby O’Gill and the Little People” is a superior period fantasy, and “Mary Poppins” the superior blend of animation and live action. When I reviewed the DVD years ago I gave it a 5 out of 10 because those hillbillies and the sweeter-than-candy scenes really grated on me. But in fairness, it’s probably more of a 6 out of 10.