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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