By the time Walt Disney’s Pete’s Dragon (1977) reached theaters, its arduous journey from story to screen had become one of the studio’s most lamented projects. Originally acquired by Walt for his popular ‘50s television anthology, Pete’s Dragon languished in pre-production purgatory while Disney’s ever-increasing diversification into films, TV and theme park operations became his main focus. Disney’s investment in live action features in the mid-50s has always held a curious place of distinction in cinema history.
While many of his initial efforts, including 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Swiss Family Robinson, Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, and of course, Mary Poppins, were obvious and ambitious attempts to rival the other studios product in scope, scale and overall quality, a lot of Disney’s later efforts – like The Absent-Minded Professor, The Shaggy Dog, and Old Yeller play like little more than glorified and extended television episodes torn from Disney’s own Disneyland variety hour programming.
Walt died in 1966, his last personally supervised live action feature – The Happiest Millionaire – a star-studded and lavishly appointed family musical that unfortunately sank like a stone at the box office. After Disney’s death, the company went into self-imposed hibernation characterized by a chronically stymied output of artistically uneven films that continued to champion the Disney ‘family brand’, though regrettably, in a decade that increasingly seemed to have little interest in such product. Nearly two decades later the studio, desperate for a mega hit like Mary Poppins, green lit Pete's Dragon for director Don Chaffey. It would be the studio’s last big budget attempt at resurrecting the Hollywood musical until Newsies (1992).
In theory, Pete’s Dragon had all the essential ingredients necessary to make it another box office smash, not the least being its infectious integration of live action and animation, so winningly brought to life in Mary Poppins (1964) and, more recently, Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). Hence, in retrospect it remains something of a mystery how the finished film could so completely missed the mark and fail to connect with its audience. The screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein – based on the much beloved children’s story by S.S. Field – contains many of the studio’s time-honored hallmarks; buoyant and occasionally memorable songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn that included the Oscar-nominated ‘Candle on the Water’; an all-star cast featuring Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Jim Dale and songstress Helen Reddy - winsome and appealing in her first film - and some truly stellar animation supplied by Don Bluth – all of it married to Frank V. Phillip's sumptuous cinematography and some breathtaking matte work that effortlessly recaptured the rustic seaside locales of turn of the century Maine.
Yet Pete’s Dragon was a colossal critical and financial disappointment. Critics who had praised the Disney schmaltz as ‘magic’ a decade earlier were now quick to attribute more maudlin quaintness to the exercise, prompting the studio to quickly pull and re-edit the original 134 minute road show print down to 121 minutes. The cuts did little to change audience perceptions of the film however. It faded from public consciousness until the advent of home video, where oddly enough Pete’s Dragon not only did quite well in rentals but actually managed to turn a profit.
However, by then the film’s run time had been pared down to a scant 104 minutes on video cassette and an even more abysmal 94 minutes for its first televised broadcast. The version currently available on Blu-ray is a 128 min. approximation of the original theatrical engagement, leaving this critic to speculate that it is probably unlikely the original 134 min. road show still exists or will ever surface on home video.
Plot wise: the story begins with Pete’s (Sean Marshall) escape from the Gogan family; a vial crew of lazy good fer’ nothin’s headlined by Lena (Shelley Winters). It seems Pete is their legal ‘property’ and has been exploited for hard labor on their ramshackle of a farm. Having successfully eluded his captors, Pete settles in for the night with his invisible dragon, Elliot (voiced by Charlie Callas). The next morning Pete and Elliot – the latter fully materialized into a towering green and pink overgrown child - make their way to the enclave of Passamaquoddy; a coastal town presumably in Maine, but actually Morro Bay California where all of the film’s exteriors were shot.
Pete is first spotted by town drunk, Lampie (Mickey Rooney) who flips at the sight of Elliot. The good news for Pete is that no one believes Lampie’s story – not even his own daughter, Nora (Helen Reddy), who takes a shine to Pete. After learning that he is an orphan, Nora opens her heart and the doors to the lighthouse she shares with Lampie to give Pete a home. Nora’s heart has been empty since the disappearance of her beloved sea captain sweetheart, Paul (Cal Bartlett). Nora tells Pete he must go to school. But his first day is an unmitigated disaster when Elliot decides to wreak havoc on Pete’s cruel disciplinarian teacher, Miss Taylor (Jane Kean).
Enter Doc Terminus (Jim Dale) – a one man travelling circus and a charlatan who sells his potions, lotions and snake oil remedies to unsuspecting citizens with his accomplice, Hoagy (Red Buttons). Learning of Pete’s dragon from the locals, Terminus decides that Elliot is real – especially after a drunken Lampie takes an equally inebriated Hoagy down to the cave beneath the lighthouse to show Elliot off in a truly hilarious scene. Hence, when the Gogans arrive in town looking for Pete, Terminus strikes a bargain to secure Elliot for himself – as a medical experiment - and give Pete back to his oppressors.
Pete is kidnapped by the Gogans but freed by Elliot, who also manages to save town council from electrocution during a violent thunderstorm, thus incurring their respect and admiration. But the biggest surprise of all is the arrival of Nora’s sweetheart, Paul who, after suffering from amnesia in a distant hospital for many months, awoke to remember his past and is saved from having his ship smash against the rocks of Passamaquoddy light by Elliot’s flame-throwing capabilities. The story ends with Elliot informing Pete that he must leave him for good to go in search of another child who is desperate for his intervention. This bittersweet farewell is diffused by Pete’s appreciation for all that Elliot has done for him, and by the fact that Pete now has a real home with Lampie, Nora and Paul.
Pete’s Dragon is by no means a perfect movie. The dance sequences are rather haphazardly staged, relying more on the rustic coastal beauty than any sort of structured choreography to ignite our fancy. Onna White staged the dances, but herein she seems content to allow the cast to do pretty much as they please. The children’s elaborate routine that interrupts Reddy’s ‘There’s Room For Everyone in This World’ reveals glimmers of the same bell kicks White used during Buddy Hackett’s Shipoopi number in The Music Man over at Warner Bros. a decade earlier, but without any of the finesse or swirling camera work necessary to make them truly outstanding.
‘Brazzle Dazzle Day’ has Rooney, Marshall and Reddy do little more than walk in and out of frame with their arms locked, occasionally pretending to polish the lighthouse glass and lenses with rags, their shirt sleeves and their bottoms. ‘I Saw A Dragon’ is just a series of cutaways cobbled together in the editing process, as Lampie and the town’s drunken rabble lampoon their fear of the unknown. Indeed, viewing Pete’s Dragon today it remains the dance portions that are the most reluctantly out of touch; with their own time, the supposed vintage of the story and the esthetics of traditional movie choreography. None hold up under closer scrutiny and all bring the storyline to a screeching halt.
Still, Helen Reddy warbles most of the songs with great heart and conviction – particularly ‘Candle on the Water’ – a haunting ballad with undercurrents of personal longing. As Lampie, Rooney is an admirable ham, while Dale manages to make the most as an inspired foppish villain. Reportedly Rooney and Buttons chewed up the scenery in the scene where Lampie takes Hoagy down to the cave to meet Elliot for the first time. The two had great good fun riffing off one another’s feigned drunkenness, drawing explosive laughter from the crew. But their mugging for the camera extended the sequence by fifteen minutes of pratfalls and tumbling.
Realistically, Pete’s Dragon may not represent the pinnacle of Disney’s brand in family entertainment – but it is certainly a far cry from the clunker denounced by most critics back in the day. Viewed today, it continues to delight mostly because the performances within it are universally good and very sincere – Reddy and Rooney’s in particular. Don Bluth’s animation is superb as is Charlie Callas’ evocative series of grunts and groans that effectively relate a dialogue for Elliot who remains non-speaking throughout the film. And the music, if below par compared to Mary Poppins per say, is still very rich and melodic indeed. It may not have Poppins’ staying power, but it certainly has well beyond enough charm to warm the heart.
Disney’s marketing for Pete’s Dragon on Blu-ray is most curious indeed. The Blu-ray is housed in a DVD case with a copy of the film on DVD that is ear-marked as a 35th anniversary edition. That said, the powers that be at Disney, in their infinite and mysterious wisdom, have chosen to excise all of the extras originally featured on their ‘gold collection’ DVD release from 1998, including a series of shorts. Instead, we’re given a featurette hosted by Sean Marshall that spends the bulk of its run time affectionately waxing about Disney live action/animation history while only superficially glossing over the production of Pete’s Dragon. This was part of the DVD reissue from 2004. We also get a deleted song and some trailers – none remastered in 1080p.
Now, for the good news. Pete’s Dragon on Blu-ray looks incredible! The new hi-def master yields richness in color and texture not seen since the original theatrical release. Flesh tones are very natural. Color throughout is vibrant while fine detail simply pops as only a true 1080p mastering effort can showcase. Contrast is bang on with deep and enveloping blacks. Matte work and animation are seamlessly blended with the live action for a visual presentation that is universally stunning. Great stuff, and hopefully a precursor to what we can expect from Disney when they get around to releasing other classics like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Swiss Family Robinson, Pollyanna, The Parent Trap, Mary Poppins, et al to hi-def.
The other impressive aspect of this transfer is the sound. The new DTS 5.1 audio is exceptionally vibrant, particularly during the songs. Dialogue is very natural sounding throughout. Truly, Disney has given us Pete’s Dragon in an incarnation that will please all who adore this movie. While I could fault the company for what’s not there – namely the aforementioned extras - I was so pleased by my viewing of the feature film that I can practically forgive the company this oversight. Bottom line: highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)