REVIEW: Pete’s Dragon [1977]

Score: 6/10 | ★ ★ ½

Rating: G | Runtime: 128 minutes | Release Date: November 3rd, 1977 (USA)
Studio: Walt Disney Productions / Buena Vista Distribution Company
Director(s): Don Chaffey
Writer(s): Malcolm Marmorstein / Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field (story)

“I didn’t think I’d ever be happy til I met you”

If memory serves, I loved Pete’s Dragon. It was on the same VHS tape as Sword In the Stone in my family, two Disney films I don’t think anyone else enjoyed. As such I watched Robin Hood a lot to keep the peace—a superior work to both anyway. So now that I’m probably about twenty-five years past my last viewing, it appears little was retained. While I vaguely recall Elliott the dragon’s look, the reality of its two-plus hour runtime and the fact that it’s a musical escaped me (boy is my memory bad). Watching it today in preparation for the new remake therefore proved an experience of light bulbs crackling as each scene shook the cobwebs for my enjoyment as a six-year old to flood back.

It’s a cute story about friendship and consequences written by Malcolm Marmorstein from a Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field short story and directed by Don Chaffey. Young Pete (Sean Marshall) is a runaway—a boy caked in mud that was literally sold to the Gogan clan (Shelley Winters‘ matriarch Lena, Charles Tyner‘s husband Merle, and Jeff Conaway and Gary Morgan as their kids Willie and Grover). Theirs was an abusive situation of slave labor; Pete’s only escape the friendship of his green and purple lapdog of a dragon able to turn invisible whenever necessary. Our introduction to this circus is a pursuit through the woods with Pete on Elliott’s neck, the Gogans on the hunt. The latter’s song is cruel, our desire for the boy’s safety high.

From here we move to the quaint seaside town of Passamaquoddy, a hopeful oasis of peace and quiet for Pete that’s far-removed from the evilness of his guardianship. Elliott is told to disappear and behave himself, the second request proving as difficult as can be for a mischievous beast as he. The comedy that ensues is slapstick, each misstep the dragon makes becoming one more inconsiderate slight to the boy. Pete raps on a fence with a stick; Elliott destroys it with his tail. Pete tells his friend to stay on the sidewalk but forgets to tell him the upcoming patch is wet cement; Elliott ruins the pristine squares with his giant feet. But since the boy is all anyone can see, he is the one to blame.

The same goes for moments where Pete tries fixing Elliott’s errors, quick reflexes putting his hands on the objects in question (the school bell’s rope or his teacher’s chair) and therefore painting them red. It’s as funny to watch as it is heartbreaking; Pete’s attempts to shield Elliott from ridicule and violence born by fear forcing him to endure the punishment for actions out of his control. But it’s reciprocal, the dragon saving his hide plenty of times by flying them out of trouble or running interference for quick getaways. They’re two peas in a pod, this creature an obvious figment of Pete’s imagination as a psychological coping device somehow brought to life as protector. Until a suitable family can be secured, Elliott will remain by his side.

One may arrive sooner than later as headstrong lighthouse keeper Nora (Helen Reddy) takes interest in the boy’s plight. Already caring for one child—her town drunk of a father named Lampie (Mickey Rooney) who actually sees Elliott and of course is dismissed as the crazy louse he is when looking to tell everyone else—Pete is actually a step-up on the self-sufficiency scale. He also helps to take her mind off her fiancé Paul (Cal Bartlett) who sailed out to sea a year prior never to be heard from again. The two become thick as thieves, a friendship burgeoning as strong as that with Elliott. She could be the person to give Pete the life he deserves; he the hope in miracles she has all but lost.

Add a corrupt conman in Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale) and his lackey Hoagy (Red Buttons) to seek capturing the dragon while the eventual return of the Gogans threaten Pete’s freedom and you have your adversaries for this tale of fantastical wonders and love’s familial bond. Who gets to see Elliott and how (namely while drunk) is carefully plotted to draw the climactic convergence of so many characters out. The selfish gain of Terminus and the Gogans is elaborated in multiple songs while Nora’s bittersweet heartbreak and Pete’s newfound happiness are expressed via “Candle on the Water” and “It’s Not Easy” respectively. Some things are obviously dated, but the message remains universally true. Mary Poppins comparisons are apt, Pete’s Dragon possessing equal heart even if less depth and wit.

The animation effects putting a two-dimensional, hand-drawn dragon into frame with live actors and settings surprisingly hold up through the high-definition restoration process. You can tell characters in the foreground are superimposed on many backgrounds along with Elliott (most sequences are composites of three fields so the animation can live inside the world rather than on top), but the way he interacts is practically seamless. The pains taken to even shade drop shadows on Elliott when objects are close by aren’t to be ignored. Neither is the decision to change his coloring while flying in and out of tree shade and sunlight. This transition might not look perfect, but the fact the animators went the extra mile to render the juxtaposition as authentic as possible is unquestionably admirable.

In the end there’s a lot to love for young children with cartoonish gags and wild imagination. The nuance in lyrics for songs sung by villains will go over their heads while making adults cringe to think of the cavalier abuse at play, so hopefully melodies are hummed by grade schoolers and not voiced in full. Dale’s a perfect Disney arch villain, the Gogans vilely despicable cretins, and Rooney a loveable teddy bear of a man. Marshall’s innocence lends Pete the perfect mix of vulnerability and courage, Reddy’s empathy a parental instinct to be respected rather than feared. And Elliott: well you don’t get much cuter than him. Faithful, loyal, and selfless to a fault—we can all learn from this lovable beast. There’s always room for everyone.

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