DVD Review: Pete’s Dragon

High-Flying Edition

Disney/Buena Vista | 1977 | 129 mins. | Rated G

Walt Disney died of cancer in 1966. The death of their founder seemed to leave employees of the Walt Disney Company in a quandary for years. Though a new management team was put in place, throughout the seventies their mantra seemed to be, what would Walt do? As a result, many of the projects that came out of Disney during that period of time were similar to ones Walt had championed during his lifetime.

Walt had successfully combined live action and animation for the 1964 hit Mary Poppins, so it should have come as no surprise when the Disney brain trust went to that well again. It all started with 1971’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Despite the films less than spectacular box office performance, Disney gave the live action/animation musical another try. This time it was 1977’s Pete’s Dragon. Based on an unpublished short story Walt Disney had originally acquired for his Walt Disney Anthology television series, the story was turned into a feature length film by scribe Malcolm Marmorstein (Return from Witch Mountain).

Pete's Dragon

As the film opens, young Pete (Sean Marshall) is attempting to escape from four hillbillies–Ma Gogan (Shelley Winters) and her louse-spouse and two grown sons paid $50 for the little orphan and have apparently been using him as their personal slave. Pete isn’t afraid to leave, because he has an imaginary dragon friend named Elliot (voiced by Charlie Callas), with him. The two soon find themselves in the little town of Passamaquoddy, where Pete’s dragon causes trouble and it falls to the local lighthouse keeper, Nora (Helen Reddy), to help and befriend him. Nora’s father, Lampie (Mickey Roooney) is the town drunk and as such, people believe he is responsible for much of the mischief Elliot gets into. Having lost her beau at sea the year before, Nora is immediately taken by Pete. She’s even amused by all his dragon talk.

Intrigued by reports of a dragon, con men Doc Terminus (Jim Dale) and his “intern” Hoagy (Red Buttons), return to town. Despite the fact that the populace has been duped by these men before, they are able to convince the town to go along with their plan to capture the beast for monetary gain.

Though Pete’s Dragon cost $4.5 million more than Mary Poppins to make, the result is largely forgettable. The blend of live action and animation borders on cheesy, the smile-challenged “villains” are more annoying than threatening, the plots is weak, and, apart from the Academy Award-nominated “Candle on the Water” sung by Grammy winner Helen Reddy (“I am Woman”), the songs are completely forgettable. Even the comic presence of Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, and Jim Backus doesn’t help. And I love Helen Reddy’s voice but she’s not an actress; perhaps that’s why she hasn’t played any substantive roles since then.

I know some people really like Pete’s Dragon, but for me the film is a largely unforgettable, slow moving experience that managed to waste a lot of talented people.

Presented in 1.66:1 aspect ratio, this edition of Pete’s Dragon doesn’t look a lot different than previous releases. The animation has a very grainy look to it. While the live action fares better, it’s far from pristine. Colors are more washed out then one would like and there are occasional instances of dirt and edging.

Though the soundtrack is a standard Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround, it comes across flat. There’s no distortion, but there’s no zest either. Middle tones dominate, rather than a full range of bass and high treble notes. Very bland for a musical.

This edition does have quite a few special features:

Brazzle Dazzle Effects: Behind Disney’s Movie Magic (25:22) there is a discussion of the studio’s history of blending animation and live action, touching on the Alice comedies of the 1920s, mixed-medium segments from the 1940s, and technological advances made by Ub Iwerks and company. The remainder looks at Pete’s Dragon, as narrator Sean Marshall (Pete from the film) recalls his experiences, while describing techniques employed over an assortment of behind-the-scenes footage.
Deleted Storyboard Sequence (2:25) “Terminus & Hoagy Hunt Elliott” (2:25) uses rough pencil sketches and archival audio to recreate a short cut scene.
Original Song Concept (2:35) for “Boo Bop Bopbop Bop (I Love You, Too)”. A man’s rendition plays over conceptual sketches of the boy and dragon’s duet scene.
Original Demo Recordings (7:07) an early version of “Brazzle Dazzle Day”, a different take on “Every Little Piece”, and “The Greatest Star of All.” That last number didn’t make it into the final film.
Promotional Record (12:00) Pop versions of “It’s Not Easy”, “Brazzle Dazzle Day”, “There’s Room for Everyone” and “Candle on the Water,” from uncredited performers recorded in the seventies.
Where’s Elliott?: The Disappearing Dragon Game.
Pete’s Dragon Art Galleries houses 17 stills of Elliott/Pete concept art, 26 behind-the-scenes production photos, and 14 publicity pictures (ranging from poster designs and merchandise to premiere appearances).
From the Disney Channel’s 1980s Disney Family Album documentary series comes a clip of animator Ken Anderson (2:20), who discusses the ideas he brought to the character of Elliott. “The Plausible Impossible” (3:36) is a piece of the Halloween 1956 episode of Disneyland, in which Walt Disney explains how the guiding philosophy of Disney animators relates to fantastic beliefs of past cultures, such as dragons and centaurs.
Lighthouse Keeping (6:41) is a 1946 Donald Duck cartoon short included for its obvious thematic relevance.

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