Pete’s Dragon (1977)

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Pete’s Dragon
Dir. Don Chaffey
Premiered November 3, 1977

In 1984, the Walt Disney Company produced Ron Howard’s comedy film Splash. It was a first for the company: a Disney film in all but name, released under the more adult-sounding label “Touchstone Pictures.” It had been a long time coming.

With Walt Disney dead, and the leaderless corporation operating on vague, increasingly childish ideas of “what Walt would’ve done” (so much for “keep moving forward”), the types of films the company released were more and more constrained. At times, they tried following the lead of New Hollywood, but could never provide the budget– imagine, Disney the poorest studio– or willingness to cede creative control to live up to cinema’s new titans. And with equal frequency, such as with 1977’s perennial midday afternoon favorite Pete’s Dragon, they went full retrograde.

The film is set in Maine during the 1900s– at least, a version of the 1900s where commercial ships are still 50 feet long, made of wood, and use sails. In the woods, young Pete (Sean Marshall) runs and hides from his hillbilly captors the Gogans (Shelley Winters, Charles Tyner, Gary Morgan, and Jeff Conaway) who have purchased him as a slave.

For those keeping score, this is the second Disney movie of 1977 to involve child slavery.

Protecting Pete is a mysterious dragon he calls Elliot (voiced by Charlie Callas), who often turns invisible. Escaping to the cheerful harbor town of Passamaquoddy, Elliot is spotted by drunken lighthouse keeper Lampie (Mickey Rooney), and later taken in by him and his daughter Nora (Helen Reddy), who’s recently lost her fiancé at sea.

Soon after, traveling flim-flam man Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale) comes to town, and though he initially laughs off rumors of a dragon in the area, he discovers the myriad ways dragon parts can be used in patent medicines through a musical number that is as catchy as its lyrics are unexpectedly graphic, and hatches a plan with the Gogans to ensnare both Pete and Elliot.

The first thing you notice is the production values. The one thing Pete’s Dragon does really well is Elliot. Immense technical lengths are reached to make his presence feel real, but the animators never fool themselves into thinking they can make him look real and go for pure traditional animation, not unlike Song of the South. Unfortunately, the aspect ratio is the only sign that this isn’t as old as Song of the South.

And it’s not just the datedness. This would have been as bad in 1947 as 1977. It’s not that Sean Marshall can’t act; it feels as if he was directed to fail. The musical numbers feature ADR so bad that it looks as if the actors were overdubbed from another language, Sergio Leone-style. The cinematography constantly calls attention to it, the choreography is ever so slightly sluggish, and, except for the aforementioned vivisection song, the connection between lyrics and overall story are tenuous. The signature song, “Candle on the Water,” comes out of nowhere and grinds the film to a halt.

About that story…there’s a place for darkness in children’s entertainment; I grew up with that stuff, I love it, it’s great. But Pete’s Dragon never gives its darker content any heft, which is unfortunate, because there’s some pretty fucked up shit here. Not only are the Gogans child-slavers, though that would’ve been enough, they’re feral sociopaths who dream of drowning Pete for fun and argue over which of them gets to rape Nora. And the movie’s presentation of this is comparatively competent; less so an overlong scene in which Pete is beaten by his teacher (Jane Kean) for Elliot’s invisible escapades just so Elliot can fly in and save the day, confirming his existence, only for Nora and Lampie, apropos of nothing and with no effect on the plot, to suddenly deny ever having seen or believed in Elliot just to give Pete an emotional low point for the second act break.

And this gets at the central flaw in Pete’s Dragon, the one ensuring that, despite its popularity at the time, it would never be adopted as an icon of nostalgia or “Disneyana.” Leonard Maltin places the movie as the last of a long run of attempts by the studio to recapture the success of Mary Poppins. That makes a lot of sense, and explains why it doesn’t work. Mary Poppins is ultimately about a father learning to reconnect with his children and rediscover the enjoyment of life before it’s too late. Likewise, the first Mary Poppins knock-off, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, is about children learning to be brave in the face of the Second World War while still holding onto the magic in life, giving that bravery purpose.

What is the point of Pete’s Dragon? Pete has no arc, he doesn’t change. He finds a family who loves him, but he does that on his own, Elliot is just window dressing. And the validation Pete gets at the end of the movie is rendered futile when Elliot leaves to “help” other kids in need. It’s the pointlessness of the endeavor that renders what might have been a piece of cult ephemera into a lifeless, short-lived mediocrity.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
The word “internship” is pronounced slightly differently, with the emphasis on “tern.” Nora wears bellbottoms, and they do amazing things to her ass.

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How Did It Do?
Pete’s Dragon grossed $35.5 million in its first run against a $10 million budget, making it the 12th highest-grossing film of 1977 and Disney’s biggest success of the year. Critics were divided. Positive reviews mostly regarded it as a welcome throwback to Disney’s live-action crowdpleasers in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Negative reviews found it hollow, unmotivated, and overlong. Even hardcore Disney nerds seem to be iffy on it, with a 1984 re-release yielding just $4.1 million. However, the movie did get two Oscar nominations: Best Original Score and Best Original Song for “Candle on the Water.”

Normally, that’s where the story would end, but out of nowhere, Disney decided to give Pete’s Dragon a new-and-improved remake, Ocean’s Eleven-style, with no songs, a CGI Elliot, and David Lowery at the helm. Released in 2016, it was far more positively received by critics and made way more money than the original could’ve dreamed of, but still barely broke even, the studio system now having become ridiculously top-heavy. I promise I’ll get to it someday.

But for now, it’s time for one of the big ones.

Next Time: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

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