Disney Movie of the Month

“Pete’s Dragon” (1977)

Walt Disney Productions’ 1977 big budget musical Pete’s Dragon (not to be confused with the 2016 non-musical remake) is an ambitious musical comedy that tries hard but, due to many factors, just doesn’t quite hit the mark.

(© Disney)

Following the template set by Walt Disney’s magnum opus Mary Poppins (1964), and to a much lesser extent Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971), Pete’s Dragon is another attempt to merge live-action and animation into a family-friendly musical. The film’s premise is a clever one–an orphaned boy is befriended and protected by an animated dragon that only he can see. The Disney Studios’ bosses of the mid-1970s pulled together a talented team to try to re-ignite the Disney musical magic. Veteran Disney director Don Chaffey was tasked to direct the project. Hot (at the time) Hollywood songwriting duo Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn were hired to write original songs for the film. The legendary Irwin Kostal composed the film’s score. Internationally acclaimed pop star Helen Reddy signed on to play the female lead (it was her first film), Broadway star Jim Dale was cast to play one of the villains, and Hollywood veterans Mickey Rooney, Shelley Winters, and Red Buttons all came on board for the project, too.

In a nutshell, the story has orphan Pete (played by Sean Marshall) and his mostly invisible dragon Elliott (animated by Ken Anderson and the Disney Animation team) on the run from Pete’s super creepy hillbilly foster family, the Gogans (played by Shelley Winters, Jeff Conaway, and others), whose evil purpose in wanting Pete is for him to be their slave. Pete and Elliott arrive in the town of Passamaquoddy (which looks like somewhere on the coast of Maine) and meet Lampie the lighthouse keeper (played by Mickey Rooney) and his daughter Nora (played by Helen Reddy) who show pity on poor Pete and let him stay with them in their lighthouse. Nora looks after Pete and becomes a mother figure to him, helping him to integrate into life in the town. In the meantime, crooked snake oil salesmen Dr. Terminus (played by Jim Dale) and Hoagy (played by Red Buttons) arrive in Passamaquoddy and try to sell the townspeople on their fraudulent elixirs. Dr. Terminus finds out about Elliott and turns his focus on to capturing him, killing him, and using his body parts to concoct a new line of magic elixirs. Consequently, the Gogans continue to pursue Pete, Dr. Terminus is determined to terminate Elliott, and the plot continues on from there.

So what went wrong? Lots, as far as I’m concerned. But first let’s focus on the good parts. Even with all of the great human talent on and off the screen, the real star of the show is animator Ken Anderson’s Elliott the dragon. Elliott has such a great character design with his beautiful green color, bright pink hair and wings, and fluid shape. Elliott’s charm is in his bumbling yet informed innocence, which is perfectly expressed by the terrific animation done on his character. The special effects wizards at the Disney Studios contributed significantly to Elliott’s performance as they had to create visuals to match the invisible movements of the dragon through the human environments. I was especially impressed with all of the effects near the beginning of the film when an invisible Elliott is inadvertently destroying everything he comes in contact with when Pete and Elliott arrive in Passamaquoddy. Also impressive are the backgrounds and visual effects done by the Disney Studios’ Process Lab making it look like the film was filmed on the coast of Maine where the majority of it was shot on the Disney Studios backlot and Disney’s Golden Oak Ranch in Southern California.

(© Disney)

The uneven script and musical numbers really cause the problems for me. The script is convoluted and overly cluttered with multiple villains, unnecessary subplots (which I won’t bore you with here; I’ll let the film do that), and a lack of focus. And at a running time of 128 minutes, it’s simply too long (more about that later). While “Candle on the Water” and “Brazzle Dazzle Day” are the delightful musical high points in the film, there are disastrous musical low points such as “The Happiest Home in These Hills” horrifyingly sung by Shelley Winters and company, the onerous “Passmashloddy” sung with one dimensional earnestness by Jim Dale and Red Buttons, and the pleasant but out of place anthem “There’s Room for Everyone.” Mickey Rooney and Helen Reddy do their best with the barrel dancing scene “I Saw a Dragon,” but the segment pales in comparison to “Step in Time” from Mary Poppins or any of the great musical dance numbers from Hollywood’s or Disney’s golden ages. Overall, the talented cast does the best they can with the material, but, sadly, the material is just not that good.

Although there is sentimental pleasure and comfort in watching a Disney-produced film from this era, the unevenness of the final product is a shame. The film had so much potential, even if it was trying to recreate a type of film whose best efforts were in the past. It would take another decade for the musical to flourish again at Disney with the renaissance of Disney Animation and their string of hit animated musicals beginning with 1989’s The Little Mermaid.

Now one more thing about the film’s lengthy running time. It sounds like this was problem from the get-go and different cuts of the film have been released over the years. I found this blurb about it on IMDb:

This Disney film has a troubled history as far as the many different versions released over the years. It originally ran 134 minutes. After its premiere engagement in Hollywood, it was cut down to 121 minutes before it premiered in New York. When it was released in Europe, it ran 105 minutes, with the following edits: “Candle on the Water” (which survived only as an instrumental passage over the credits replacing the original overture) and “The Happiest Home in These Hills” were eliminated entirely; verses from “I Saw A Dragon,” “Passamashloddy,” “There’s Room For Everyone,” and “Every Little Piece” were cut; 21 scenes were shortened. This version was used for the original home video release in 1980, while every video since then has run 128 minutes, restoring the songs and the majority of dramatic material. However, when Disney re-released it in theaters, it was the European cut. Even further cuts were made for the TV version of the film, which premiered on “The Disney Sunday Movie” in 1986.

I watched the 2009 “High-Flying Edition” DVD of the film and I assume that it contained the 128-minute cut. (I would very much like to talk with someone with knowledge about this at Disney. I think it would be great for them to do a restored version of the 134-minute original edit, but, then again, that’s a lot of time to have to sit through this film again.)

Helen Reddy singing “Candle on the Water” (© Disney)

On a happier note, the special features on the “High Flying Edition” DVD were enlightening and a lot of fun. I particularly I liked the short documentary “Brazzle Dazzle Effects: Behind Disney’s Movie Magic,” which described some of the remarkable special effects developed over the years at the Disney Studios that were incorporated into the making of the film (the mini-documentary has been bootlegged on YouTube in two sections–part one and part two; these are highly recommended for any major Disney fan). The special features also contained four audio tracks from a 7″ promotional EP with pop versions of songs from the film. My friends and I were in stitches as we listened to the pop version of “Brazzle Dazzle Day” which had modified lyrics and a sound that would do Richard Carpenter proud. (I would really love to find a copy of this record!)

1977 theatrical poster (© Disney)

Overall, Pete’s Dragon only holds up as a sentimental trip to the past that wasn’t that great of an trip to begin with. (But I still want to talk with someone at Disney about that 134-minute cut along with that 7″ promotional record.)

My rating: 2 out of 5 stars

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Classic Cinema

“My Neighbor Totoro” and Studio Ghibli Fest 2017

Japan’s Studio Ghibli is one of the world’s great animation studios. American film audiences are in for a treat this year because film distributor GKIDS along with Fathom Events are presenting Studio Ghibli Fest 2017, a six-film retrospective where they will screen one Studio Ghibli film a month in participating theatres across the U.S.A. through November 2017. Last month’s film was the 1988 classic My Neighbor Totoro.

(© Studio Ghibli)

All films selected for Studio Ghibli Fest 2017 were directed by the great Hayao Miyazaki. The six films are My Neighbor Totoro (which was screened on June 25 and 26 and is the impetus for this post), Kiki’s Delivery Service (July 23 and 24), Castle in the Sky (August 27 and 28), Nausicaä and the Valley of the Wind (September 24 and 25), Spirited Away (October 29 and 30), and Howl’s Moving Castle (November 26 and 27). As you’ll see on a calendar, the screenings take place on consecutive Sundays and Mondays with the Sunday screenings being an English dub version of the film and Monday screenings being the English subtitle version. I purchased tickets for all six films at a discounted price at Cinemark.com (my local participating theater). More info about the festival is at the Fathom Events website

If you’ve never seen My Neighbor Totoro, you really should. It’s an incredibly charming and beautiful treatise on the wonder of childhood and is probably my favorite Studio Ghibli film. Getting to see a pristine digital print of this film on the big screen was a dream come true. The trademark animation from director Hayao Miyazaki and the supremely talented artists at Studio Ghibli continues to inspire. I was particularly moved this time by seeing the gorgeous watercolor backgrounds used in the film’s production super-sized on the big screen. Check out this video of the film’s art director Kazuo Oga painting in watercolor and you’ll get a taste for the tremendous artistry at work here.

Another treat was to hear the film’s marvelous soundtrack on the great stereo system at my local Cinemark theater. Composer Joe Hisaishi, who is often referred to as the “John Williams of Japan,” has over 100 film scores under his belt, and his score for My Neighbor Totoro is just plain magic in the best sense of the word. (I loved hearing this music again so much, I’ve been listening daily to the film’s soundtrack on Apple Music since the screening.) Here’s a video with Joe Hisaishi at the piano playing “The Path of the Wind,” one of memorable musical themes from the film.

I also learned at the screening that when My Neighbor Totoro made its cinematic debut in Japan, it was a double feature. The film was paired with another Studio Ghibli film–Isao Takahata’s beautiful and devastating Grave of the Fireflies. (My Neighbor Totoro has a running time of 86 minutes and Grave of the Firefiles is 90 minutes; I hope that Firefiles was screened first, but I don’t believe that was the case).

(© Studio Ghibli)

After the film’s screening, I recorded a podcast with my friend and prolific film reviewer Rachel Wagner. You can check out our Totoro podcast here.

My Neighbor Totoro kicked off GKIDS’ Studio Ghibli Fest 2017 in a perfect way. I can’t wait to experience the rest of these wonderful Studio Ghibli films on the big screen in the months ahead. I hope you’ll join me, too. Follow me on Twitter and let’s discuss all things Studio Ghibli (#StudioGhibliFest).

A version of this post is also available on the Animation Fascination blog.

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Movie Posters

Poster Posse Does “Spider-Man: Homecoming”

More coolness from the talented artists at Poster Posse. Check out these great Spider-Man: Homecoming posters (they have phases one and two so far).

All images © Marvel

From artist Kaz Oomori (Instagram: @kazoomori).

Here’s a “selfie” series from artist Thomas Walker (Instagram: @tommypocket).

I love this series by artist Doaly (Instagram: @_doaly).

From artist Ben Mcleod (Instagram: @benmcleod).

From artist Arden Avett (Instagram: @ardenavett).

This one is by artist Stephen Sampson (Instagram: @thedarkinker).

Last one is this cool piece by artist Simon Delart (Instagram: @s2lart).

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