“A dragon. A dragon. You bet we saw a dragon. So big and brave he came to save a village in distress. He kept the ship from crashing when he heard the SOS. He faced a group of villains and he fought them with success…”
When Walt Disney Studios released Mary Poppins, the entertainment world was turned on its ears. The integration of live action footage with animation had never been done with such success before. The studio that nearly singlehandedly perfected modern methods of animation was also the studio that learned how to combine it almost seamlessly with real breathing actors. With the release of Pete’s Dragon many years later, audiences couldn’t wait for a peek at how far Disney had perfected the process in those years. While as children we got a big kick out of Pete’s Dragon, anyone looking for the latest in integration technology was in for a dragon-sized disappointment. The creature effects bore no resemblance whatsoever to that earlier technique. The animation itself was crude, by Disney standards at least, and never, not for a second, appeared as if it existed in the same place as the rest of the film. The beast’s green color would fluctuate in hue as well as brightness. There were many obvious mismatches where the two media connected. Even many of the actors’ sightlines were far off the mark. Walt Disney Studios took several steps backwards with the 1977 release of Pete’s Dragon.
One of the best perks of being a reviewer is the chance to revisit old memories. Walt Disney has provided a lot of those early childhood memories, and to revisit them with each new release is kind of a sweet gig. Most of the time I find myself catapulted back to the 60’s and 70’s when my first ever movie experiences more times than not meant a Disney film. And even though I have to look at these films more critically, and more importantly through the eyes of an adult, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to find the charm that I once saw as a child. For the most part, these films have held up well with time. Unfortunately, I can’t say the same for Pete’s Dragon.
The film is overlong for one thing. At over 2 hours, it’s hard to imagine that it once held my attention for so long. Looking at it now, it’s really just a series of corny song and dance routines interrupted by the occasional snippets of a somewhat silly story. The cast is actually a very good collection of B talent from the era, and they appear to be having a blast filming the thing. Helen Reddy provides far more talent with her voice than with her thespian chops. Jim Dale is by far the best of the cast as the typical harmless baddie Dr. Terminus. Mickey Rooney provides his usual charm, and Jim Backus took time from being stranded on Gilligan’s Island to provide a few amusing moments as the village mayor. No doubt about it. This was a very charming and enjoyable cast. Still, it simply doesn’t hold up. There’s a ton of slapstick interwoven into the tale so that it no longer appears magical, merely ridiculous. The music has its moments, but the productions are too big and showy. The music was written by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn. They simply don’t turn as delightful a tune as Disney A team of songwriters, the Sherman Brothers.
“A dragon. A dragon. We’re proud to love a dragon. Before he came to fight the storm the night was dark and dim. Now everyone in town is safe again because of him. He filled the ocean full of fish. He packed it to the brim. We want it known that he’s our very own.”
Pete (Marshall) is an orphan who has just escaped from the Gogans, who have adopted him. Actually it was more like bought him. The family looks like a cast of extras from Deliverance. Led by Lena Gogan (Winters), they want Pete back. After all, who’s going to do all of those chores? Pete has befriended a dragon named Elliott, who comes to the rescue of children who are in need of a friend. Elliott is invisible most of the time, so no one really believes he even exists, at first. Pete gets blamed for all the mischief that Elliott causes by his bulk and clumsiness. When Pete happens upon the New England town of Passamaquoddy, Maine, he befriends a lighthouse keeper named Nora (Reddy) and her kindly but often drunken father Lampie (Rooney). When the con artist Dr. Terminus (Dale) comes to town with his hapless assistant Hoagy (Buttons) with their snake oils and fake elixirs and cures, it means trouble for Pete and Elliott. It seems that pretty much every part of a dragon is a cure for some ailment or another. Terminus sees dollar signs and connives to get his hands on Elliott, even if it means selling out Pete to the Gogans. It doesn’t help that the town has a fear of dragons once they find out that Elliott is real. But when Elliott saves the day a couple of times, he earns a place in the heart of the villagers and a real home filled with love for Pete.
Pete’s Dragon is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.66:1. This “High Flying” edition doesn’t appear to be any different from the 2001 release of the film. There’s just too much noise in the image. It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking grain, compression artifact, or simply dirt in the print. It all equals an unimpressive presentation, one not worthy of the effort Disney has made in so many releases lately. This one just fell through the cracks. The animation suffers the worst. It’s absolutely terrible. It doesn’t help that the bit rate averages down around 4 mbps.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track fairs little better. It all sounds very flat and undynamic. The sub level is pretty much not there at all. Dialog is okay, but I found Elliott’s mumbling speech more than a little annoying. I know. It’s not the fault of the audio presentation, but I thought this was a good a place as any to bring it up. Even the musical numbers sound flat. I’ve heard better from my old LP’s.
Brazzle Dazzle Effects – Behind Disney’s Movie Magic: (25:23) At first the feature talks about some of the great Disney animation tradition and then settles in to focus on the film. The two parts are roughly about half of the feature each. The part of the feature about the film is hosted by Sean Marshall, who of course, played Pete. He offers a lot of nice reminiscing moments.
Where’s Elliott? An interactive game that won’t hold the attention of a 5 year old.
Lighthouse Keepin’: (6:42) A Donald Duck short.
The rest of the features include excerpts from other Disney documentaries, text notes, and deleted songs and scenes brought to you with storyboards.
Pete’s Dragon is just one of those films that wasn’t nearly as magical as I remembered it. As children we get caught up in a particular character more than the story in a film. Honestly, I hadn’t remembered very much of the plot at all. I just remembered Elliott. And now I found even he wasn’t what I remembered him to be. As much as it pains me to say this about a Disney classic film, this is just too forgettable a movie to reunite with. There are plenty of classics out there, however. Skip this one, and have yourself a “Brazzle Dazzle Day”.