Ah, Pete’s Dragon.
With the trailer for the new version dropping, I figured this was as good a time as any to revisit the 1977 original.
The story behind this story starts with Mary Poppins and its massive box office success. Well, actually, it starts with Walt Disney and Song of the South, the first Disney film to blend animated characters into live-action sequences. Walt Disney was kind of enamoured with the process and not-so-subtly hinted to the guys working on Mary Poppins that he would like to see it incorporated somehow, so we got the famous Dick Van Dyke dancing with penguins “Jolly Holiday” thing.
Never ones to show dignity and restraint, the good people at Disney were soon to follow up with animation/live-action combos Bedknobs and Broomsticks in 1971, and Pete’s Dragon in 1977. It’s easy to forget now that in the 1960’s and especially in the 1970’s, Disney’s animation department wasn’t doing so hot in terms of critical acclaim and ticket sales. The era of Cinderella was well over, and the big money makers were things like The Apple Dumpling Gang and The Love Bug. Introducing animation into the more financially viable live action films was a way to keep the animation department active and more profitable than it would have been had it just been turning out The Aristocats and Robin Hood.
And it wasn’t a bad idea. Bedknobs and Broomsticks was cute, modestly successful, and the animated sequence where a kingdom of talking animals has a violent rugby match is the actual best. Pete’s Dragon came at the tail end of the trend, after Walt Disney’s death, and it’s a solid effort, but it probably would’ve stayed a dusty relic in the Disney Vault if dragons weren’t on trend right now.
The main focus is on Pete, played by popular child actor Sean Marshall. Marshall was in episodes of Emergency!, The Carol Burnett Show, Kung Fu, Little House on the Prairie, and had major roles in The MacKenzies of Paradise Cove and The Fitzpatricks.
Pete’s an orphan because the movie is about belonging, and at the start of things he’s in something of a jam. The Gogans, a family of sinister hillbillies led by a marvellously over-the-top Shelley Winters, purchase him and force him to squeeze into narrow mineshafts to dig for gold. (Disney also released The Rescuers in 1977, in which an orphan is kidnapped and forced to squeeze into narrow caverns to look for pirate treasure. The Rescuers is by far the superior telling. And also has Bob Newhart as a talking mouse, which is an unbeatable trump card.)
Pete’s situation with the Gogans looks hopeless, until his best friend Elliot interferes.
Elliot is a dragon that somehow (it’s never explained) Pete has encountered and become very fond of. Elliot’s the sole animated character, having been designed by longtime Disney artist Ken Anderson, and brought to life by a team led by Don Bluth. As far as cartoon dragon pedigrees go, that’s like a fancy show dog.
Elliot’s voice was provided by Charlie Callas, though he doesn’t really talk. He mostly makes noises like Bing Crosby after a head injury. His main song is called “Boo Bop Bopbop Bop (I Love You, Too)” because he basically goes “bo bop doo bo do” all the time instead of using words.
The effects used to make Elliot seem like a real physical presence are on-point. Early on, when we get our first glimpse of him, Pete runs up his tail to sit on his tummy, and it’s flawless. It’s just as convincing as any motion capture wonders we have today. The trouble is, though, that Elliot’s colour scheme makes him look totally separated from his environment. In Mary Poppins and Bedknobs, the live-action characters were in colour-saturated or animated environments when they encountered cartoon figures, but here it’s Elliot who needs to blend in to the muted browns and blues of the town of Passamaquoddy. With his lime green body and his vibrant pink-purple hair and wings, he stands out. A lot.
The good news is that for most of the story, Elliot is invisible because of his dragon magic. For these sequences, Disney recreates effects like those used for the Id Monster in Forbidden Planet. Disney had loaned out animators to work on the 1956 MGM film, and they’d brought back a few ideas. The footprints-and-sound combo works extremely well. It probably would have been more interesting, visually and thematically, if the audience never saw the dragon.
Pete makes his way from the woodland wilds into the quiet seaside town of Passamaquoddy, where Jim Backus is the pompous mayor and the school system really needs an overhaul. While sheltering in a cave, Pete is discovered by Nora – the capable lighthouse keeper who lost her fiancé at sea. Nora is played by 70’s legend Helen Reddy.
Largely undiscussed today, Helen Reddy was a huge deal on what used to be called the Adult Contemporary charts, with hits like “I Am Woman”, “Delta Dawn”, and “Candle in the Water.” The latter was written specifically for this film, and was supposed to be the only song, but it was so successful, everybody decided to turn the whole thing into a musical and extend the runtime to two hours. “Candle in the Water” was nominated for an Academy Award when all was said and done (though it lost to “You Light up My Life” because the Academy is terrible at voting).
The songs, while mostly catchy, slow down the plotline to a snail’s pace, and it’s forty minutes of Pete fitting in and Elliot causing trouble before we get to the actual plot and meet our villains.
Dr. Terminus and Hoagy. The best part of the movie.
Jim Dale is the swindling medicine showman who sets up in Passamaquoddy with his faithful shill, Hoagy, played by Red Buttons. Together, they get the two best non-Candle songs, and also hit every joke and line with an unexpected edginess that holds up extremely well.
One night, Hoagy winds up drinking with Nora’s father, Lampie (Mickey Rooney), and the two of them stumble into Elliot’s cave while the dragon is visible. Terrified, Hoagy runs back to the caravan and tells his boss what he saw.
Dr. Terminus hatches a plan that I find slightly disturbing as an adult, but didn’t mind at all as a kid. He’s going to capture Elliot, kill him, and cut him up into dragon pieces to use in his medicines. There’s a song about it. It’s so catchy it’s wrong. You’ll be singing about dismembering dragons while you do the dishes.
Working with the Gogans – who want to recover Pete without dragon interference – Terminus and Hoagy soon have the whole town behind them, and things don’t look too rosy for Elliot.
I’m confident that none of this will be in the new film. In fact, from the little information that’s available and what we’ve seen in the trailer, I’m pretty sure we’re getting an environmental message about a sawmill. I think modern kids can handle dragon organ-harvesting, and it has shades of animal activism (not at all discussed in the original) so it could’ve worked.
The strangest thing about the update is setting it in modern times. The original, I should have mentioned at some earlier point, all takes place in the early 1900’s. The new film takes place today. It might hurt the fabulous qualities of the long-ago dragon, or it might make the whole thing feel like an anemic Miyazaki effort. Placing it in the PNW and adding the feral child angle probably won’t help if it skews Princess Mononoke…
The 1977 version of Pete’s Dragon is a watchable flick with some strange story choices, a solid cast (including a non-annoying child actor), and a few bumps in the road in terms of the dragon’s appearance. So as long as the new one lives up to that, then as a fan of the original, I say well done.
I probably won’t end up preferring it, though, because it won’t have snake oil salesmen in it, and those are important to me.