Pete’s Dragon (1977)
Directed by Don Chaffey
Ahead of Disney’s hotly anticipated remake, I thought it fit to travel back to 1977 to review the original musical version of the beloved “Pete’s Dragon.” Blending live action with animation, “Pete’s Dragon” sought to follow in the footsteps of popular children’s musicals like “Mary Poppins”…with significantly less successful results.
We open with Pete (Sean Marshall), an orphan in early 20th century hill country, desperately running to escape his adopted parents, the terrifying Gogans, who purchased Pete to use him for farm work. Pete looks like he’s alone, but take a closer look and you’ll see Elliot (speaking with a series of hoots and hums by Charlie Callas), Pete’s sometimes-invisible dragon friend. They make their way to the quaint seaside town of Passamaquoddy, where he meets Nora (Helen Reddy) and her drunk father Lampie (Mickey Rooney), who take Pete in to their lighthouse home. But Elliot remains invisible, only helping Pete out when he can be discreet. So nobody believes Pete when he tells them about his dragon. That is, until the quack doctor Terminus (Jim Dale) comes into town promising that his potions will cure whatever ails you. He knows the medicinal powers of dragon parts (and how much people will pay for it, whether it works or not), and he wants to capture Elliot to use him for parts.
As Pete, Sean Marshall (who never again appeared on the big screen) does a convincing enough job of interacting with his dragon friend, who’s in reality nothing more than a little post-production wizardry on the part of animator Don Bluth. Helen Reddy is best when her diaphragm is doing the talking. The singer-turned-actress, whose name you might have seen while you were belting out “Delta Dawn” at a karaoke bar, snagged one of the film’s two Oscar nominations for singing “Candle on the Water.” (The other was for Best Original Score.) While her vocals are marvelous, her line delivery is stilted and unpolished. Mickey Rooney is always reliable, but in this cartoonish role he hams it up in the name of childish comedy. Perhaps the best of the bunch is the deliciously evil Dr. Terminus, played by Jim Dale. Dale’s singing voice might not be what we’d like it to be, but like Russell Crowe in “Les Misérables,” Dale can be forgiven because—let’s face it—villains shouldn’t have strong voices anyway (except Gaston…no one sings like Gaston). But it’s not all his fault, either. Despite the Oscar nomination, “Pete’s Dragon” never cracked that list of all-time great Disney songs we all know and love. Not a single one has stood the test of time.
The biggest downfall of “Pete’s Dragon” is nothing it had any control over at all. The fact remains that 40 years has done a lot for technology. “Pete’s Dragon” is limited by its capabilities. Even the 2009 DVD release couldn’t correct the film’s muddled audio quality, which makes the characters sound like they’re speaking their lines into a tin can. Elliot fits in surprisingly well with the real world scenes around him, and Disney’s budget did allow for a few ambitious prop pieces (including one effective scene where an invisible Elliot makes a dragon-shaped hole in the side of a schoolhouse). At times it works pretty well, all things considered. But still, the incongruity that makes itself known at times can be distracting.
Yet, “Pete’s Dragon” is a wonderful addition in the Disney canon. Let’s hope 2016’s remake only adds to its lovable legacy.