Original Release: November 1977
Runtime: 134 Minutes (Original Version)
Directed By: Don Chaffey and Don Bluth
Notable Actors: Helen Reddy, Jim Dale, Mickey Rooney and Shelley Winters
Aw childhood. We all had our songs we sang and our games we played and our imaginary dragons who were our best friends. Oh, and the good times when those dragons messed up the town and put a hole in the school wall but no one believed us because he sometimes went invisible. Wait…no I think that might be ONLY the story of the main character of our next Vault Disney: The Others film, Pete’s Dragon. Pete’s Dragon is a little odd, isn’t it? It’s clearly made for children but there’s lot of drunken frivolity involved. There’s an animated dragon but he’s not evil. There’s quite a bit of singing and dancing, and there’s a hint of Mary Poppins, what with Elliot the Dragon showing up just in time to ‘save’ young Pete from the hard life that has befallen him. While Pete’s Dragon may critically have a bit of an identity crisis, I think there’s something quite special here. If you look hard enough, you might just find a story about belief and faith and the power those two things can have over the world around you.
As a child, we never really had cable. It was rare. We might get it for a couple months but then realize that it was too expensive so Mom would cancel it again. During the short stints that we had it, my Mom would record different Disney films so that I could rewatch them at my leisure. One such film was Pete’s Dragon. I say this to explain that the film I grew up with was an edited for television version so several of the songs on this watch were totally new. Right off the bat, “The Happiest Home in the Hills” was a song I’d never heard before. What this meant was that I was about to watch a film that had been a favorite of mine as a kid and I was going to get to see a “Director’s Cut” if you will. I was quite excited by this prospect.
The film was based on an unpublished short story by writer Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field. The rights to said story were bought in the 1950’s with the purpose of using it for a Disneyland attraction but eventually Malcolm Marmorstein got a hold of it and wrote a full film treatment. Director Don Chaffey took up the helm of the project. He had done smaller ventures for Disney before but was best known for his big budget films at other studios, Jason and the Argonauts and One Million Years B.C.
One of the central locations of the film is a large lighthouse that is supposedly located in Maine. This was not actually the case. The light house was built on Point Buchon Trail, south of Los Osos, California. Disney had to work closely with the Coast Guard in order to find times when they would be allowed to use the lighthouse for filming as it actually had the potential to confuse ships coming in to dock. Guys, relax, Elliot will send them on their way if they get lost. Sheesh, doesn’t the coast guard know anything about magic?
There is A LOT of magic to this little film. In fact, looking back at the other films like this on our list, Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, I think this one is the best so far at capturing the experience of a stage musical. The songs are all catchy and lovely and perfectly paced, giving us something slow and ballady and then jumping in with something a little bit faster and upbeat. Obviously “Candle on the Water” is going to stick out as the most famous but there’s certainly some beauty in “Brazzle Dazzle Day” and “I Saw a Dragon.”
Our cast is a bit of a mixed bag. There’s a lot of slapstick humor here and the characters who get those bits are infinitely less likable due to the amount of campy facial expressions they make every time something doesn’t go their way. Let’s start with the good though. Sean Marshall as Pete is a joy, and the fact that this poor little boy basically has to yell at empty air above his head for the duration of the movie is pretty impressive because he really does sell us on the idea that Elliott is a real creature. Speaking of Elliott, I like that we can’t really understand what he says. He’s incredibly adorable and lovable and it makes the fact that everyone is so scared of him that much more hysterical. Ken Anderson, creator of Elliott, mentioned that he based the dragon on those from Asian cultures as he found that these dragons were more often good than those found in European mythos. These two characters do play surprisingly well off each other and because of this, Elliot really does seem like a character that we can root for.
Nora and her father Lampie are equally fun. Nora is such a warm delight and while she isn’t as magnetic on screen as Mary Poppins or Ms. Price, she still manages to be a strong female character who isn’t afraid to fight for what she cares about. Her story of her lover lost at sea feels a bit cliche but it all goes along with the theme of the film, which is the power of faith. Only by believing in Elliot and Pete is she able to get Paul back and I like the fact that she had such a clear and distinct arc. She’s a woman who has a lot of pain but she uses that to care for others and to try to be a light in the dark for those around her. Lampie is a bit out of place in this film. Let’s face it, this is a man who gets completely drunk every single day of his life. The man has a problem. Hey Nora, while you’re taking in little boys, maybe get your old man some help! Seriously, though, there is a lot of drinking and smoking in this movie so…buyers beware.
Other characters take the campy to new heights and I found myself rolling my eyes at them by the end. Dr. Terminus, our villain, seems like something out of a Saturday morning cartoon. Every little thing he does is over the top. Sure, he’s a performer by trade but oh my God, you really can’t remember the name of the town you’re in? Get it together. Also, the song “Every Little Piece” is disturbing on the level of something from The Nightmare Before Christmas. I don’t need to hear how you’re going to cut up a lovable dragon. It’s morbid and a bit scary to actually think about.
The animation of this film is quite impressive. Elliot fits into the world much better than any animation crossover we’ve seen so far. This was done by using a multi-layering process where there was a background layer, a foreground layer and a middle layer where Pete and Elliot were shot. It creates a great illusion but I also like the idea that Elliot can turn invisible as it makes this effect never get old. It’s used just enough that it always feels fresh and fun.
The Gogan family might be my least favorite part of this movie. They are ridiculous, over the top and grown worthy. Their songs too seem to go on forever and they are always thwarted by randomly falling into something, Nickelodean slime style. Mud, tar or water, they have a knack for going from dirty to dirtier. It all seems so silly and for a story with what I found to be a surprising amount of depth, these scenes seemed so cheap and childish. There’s also the matter of their “Bill of sale” for Pete. This is ended by Elliot burning it up in the end. IN THE END. I’m sorry, but last time I checked Elliot had these skills from the start. Why on Earth did it take two hours for him to use them?
Another critique I have, well, critique is the wrong word. Let’s start over. Something I wish there was more of in the film is Elliot and Pete’s backstory. In the end, Elliot must leave Pete to go help another little boy. Okay, I can buy that, but I’d love to know how they met. Why can only Pete see Elliot when he’s invisible? There is a remake coming of this one from Disney soon and I actually hope that some of this is addressed. The film doesn’t hurt for it not being there but I feel like there could be a pretty rich mythology to a dragon who comes to children in their hour of need and gets them through the stormy weather and I simply want to know more. We start in the middle of their relationship, I’d simply like to see more of the starting parts.
The climax of this film is really special, maybe in part because I feel that so far, most of our films haven’t had very true cinematic scenes. The scene where Elliot is captured and must fight to free himself to save Pete is like something out of King Kong and it works very well. I like seeing that this adorable creature can really flex some teeth when it comes to helping his friend. I also like that his way of fighting back is fairly non-violent. No one dies or really gets hurt. They all just get off with a warning and that’s a good lesson to be told. Bullies sometimes just need to know how strong you are to back off. They don’t have to be fought back.
Pete’s Dragon is a film about believing in yourself and in others even when the world tells you not too. More than that, it is a tale of friendship and just how powerful that can be. It’s a film about kindness and not judging books by their covers and also just how much we can all learn from each other. Sure, some of the dialogue is grown worthy. Yes, some of the characters are way too over the top. You’re right, some of the story elements make no sense as to why it takes so long for certain events to occur. But none of that really matters. Pete’s Dragon teaches valuable lessons while always being entertaining and leaves us with some great tunes to hum for the week after we watch it. It’s a classic and a great film to watch with the whole family. We could all use a reminder sometimes of how valuable it can be to trust a friend and Pete and Elliot make sure we won’t soon forget it.
NEXT UP: We’ll return to Vault Disney with The Fox and the Hound.
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NOTE: Obviously all the photos are courtesy of Disney Entertainment and I would never in a million years claim them as my own. That being said, all are actually taken with my phone during our viewing in order to capture the moment in a slightly different way than originally intended.
ALSO: My Fiancee has a blog too and he is talking about all the classics we are currently watching, which involves more than just Disney. Head over HERE and check it out!