Pete's Dragon (1977)
Starring: Jim Dale, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Shelley Winters, Helen Reddy, Sean Marshall
Directed by: Don Chaffey
Released by: Buena Vista
Synopsis: An orphan boy (Sean Marshall) escapes his abusive adopted family, the Gogans, and finds a quaint Maine village called Passamaquoddy. On his first day, he leaves a destructive first impression on the villagers, all thanks to his not so imaginary dragon friend, Elliot! Their friendship will be put to the test in this brilliant musical tale.
Review: If you were to ask the average movie viewer and Disney fan what is their favorite live action Disney musical, the answer you are most likely to hear is Mary Poppins. Yes, Mary Poppins set the standards very high for Disney musicals thanks to the enchanting Julie Andrews, inspired music and impressive use of animation. While it wasn't the last musical Disney did it certainly became the most beloved and most acclaimed, with its lead starlet receiving an Academy Award. On top of this, the era would deliver some of the best musicals to have ever hit the screen, including My Fair Lady and Julie's other crowning achievement, The Sound of Music. Due to this, the Disney musicals that came after it struggled to deliver an experience as memorable as the British Nanny's. One of them was Pete's Dragon.
Released in 1977, Pete's Dragon tries to achieve the magic that made Mary Poppins a smash with audience, and for the most part it succeeds. Elliot the dragon is an animated character living in our real world. This is pulled off convincingly thanks to Don Bluth's animation (A few years after this project was completed, he would leave Disney to pursue more ambitious projects, some of them being The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail and Anastasia). Elliot is very expressive and interacts very well with the environment. The special effects used for when he is invisible and is interacting with the village are very good and creates the illusion that there is a living creature roaming the area. This sort of animation/live action hybrid puts it ahead of Mary Poppins' own animated worlds, and would later be perfected in Robert Zemecki's classic, Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
With the special effects established as being one of the film's highest points, let's talk about the rest of the film. The cast is quite commendable, each one creating a solid performance. But to me, the villains steal the show. Jim Dale as Doc Terminus is a classic film villain in every sense of the word. From his outrageous costumes to his theatrical mannerisms, he is perhaps one of the most fun Disney villains ever. The Gogans also provide some memorable moments. Even if they are supposed to be stereotypical hillbillies they prove to be a serious threat for Pete and Elliot. Speaking of Pete, Sean Marshall gives the film its heart thanks to an earnest and sincere effort as a lonely but optimistic boy. Last but not least, Helen Reddy and Mickey Rooney as Nora and Lampy respectively do a good job as Pete's inspiring and heartwarming guardians.
Elliot himself is a very lovable character that is well written and presented on-screen. He isn't the perfect companion. He causes a lot of problems, and in some cases he can be pretty violent. Both Pete and Elliot also face a lot of hurdles due to their different views on the world. This is most noted in Passamaquoddy's residents, the ones that aren't over the top like Doc Terminus. They pass harsh judgment on the boy without truly getting to know him.
So, with the animation, special effects and characters being rock solid why is Pete's Dragon such a small film in terms of popularity? Well, there are a couple of issues that keep it from being a masterpiece. The storyline is quite good and what you would expect from Disney. That's just it. Pete's Dragon doesn't take enough risks in plot and character in order to have it stand out from other Disney efforts. Giving credit where credit is due, though, the film talks very loyally about never losing your beliefs, even if you run around saying that your best friend is a dragon.
But the one thing that may be keeping the film as a cult classic among Disney fans in the music. Like I previously mentioned, the soundtrack is quite good, but like certain parts of the storyline it doesn't strike a rich creative force like Mary Poppins did. "Candle in the Water" and "It's a Brazzle, Dazzle Day" are the strongest songs in the whole film and give the story the most relevance and poignancy. The rest are fun, but aren't filling enough to deliver a grandiose experience.
Regardless of this, if you are able to forget about Mary Poppins for an hour or two Pete's Dragon should delight families and fans of all ages. A film doesn't have to be a huge success in order to be considered a classic, and in many a Disney fan the film is a great classic that shall forever be timeless in its brazzle dazzle ways.
Rating: 3 and a half filmstrips out of 5
This special review is dedicated to Brent Dodge, creator of "From Screen to Theme", and the WEDnesday friends. We discussed this film last Monday on From Screen to Theme's Movie Club. Thank you all for your support!