When Walt Disney died of cancer in 1966, he left his company in a complicated, confusing position. On the one hand, they were smack dab in the middle of his life long dream of a “living community”. They then had to complete the theme park and self-contained township that would later be labeled Walt Disney World. In addition, they had a wealth of projects under consideration, films and TV titles that, without their leader’s guiding hand and artistic spirit, would be difficult if not next to impossible to finish. It was a dilemma reflected in everything the company would do - from animation to attractions.
One of those complex efforts was a follow-up to the studios sensational Oscar winner Mary Poppins. A flawless blend of live action fantasy and fully realized pen and ink participants, Walt had wanted to continue combining the two disciplines in future film projects. The company did find some success with the 1971 WWII fantasy Bedknobs and Broomsticks, but that film only used limited interactions between the actors and animation. Indeed, it’s known more today for its climatic ‘animatronic’ battle scene than for the trip to the island of Naboombu. Sadly, until 1977, the company had to compete with Song of the South and The Three Caballeros as the only other examples of such a continued combined creativity.
Today, Pete’s Dragon walks a bifurcated critical path. Some find it delightful, a throwback to the days when the House of Mouse made family entertainment that everyone - from grandpa to grandkids - could love. Others, however, see through the pre-programmed patina, arguing against everything from the music used to the actors hired. One thing that truly stands out is the F/X process more or less invented by studio science ace (and one time animating giant) Ub Iwerks. Utilizing harsh yellow sodium lights the predated the current greenscreen conceit, Disney could avoid location shooting while recreating a turn of the century Maine fishing village on its California backlot.
The technology also allowed for one of the most flawless integrations of humans and cartoon since Mary and her charges took a “jolly holiday” inside one of Burt the Street Performer’s sidewalk paintings. Indeed, until Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in 1988, Pete’s Dragon was the approach’s bellwether - and its albatross. For Disney, it remains its last connection to its creative past, a film that fulfills much of the promise that Walt saw in his studio while also signaling its eventual rapid decline. For modern audiences, it’s a slightly less clever curiosity.
The story centers on Pete, a young orphan sold into slavery. He currently lives with the conniving abusive Gogan family. Escaping with the help of his (supposedly) imaginary dragon Elliot, our little hero soon finds himself in the sleepy seaside town of Passamaquoddy. There, he is befriended by lighthouse keeper Nora and her drunk of a father, Lampie. While Elliot constantly causes trouble, Pete gets all the blame. When snake oil salesman Dr. Terminus arrives back in the burg, lame brained lackey Hoagie in tow, he hopes to make a quick buck or two before being uncovered as a fraud. When he finds out there’s a real mythical creature around, he immediately plots its capture. With the Gogan’s on hand to reclaim their ‘property’, Nora will have her hands full protecting Pete.
As an example of Disney design, Pete’s Dragon has all the proper pieces. It offers memorable (if rather lightweight) songs, a couple of pleasant performances, a well-practiced patchwork of matte paintings, studio sets, live action locations, and various filmmaking tricks, and a breezy, easy to follow storyline. It also contains some less than memorable direction from UK guide Don Chaffey, a bevy of vaudevillian vamps from old school stars Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, and Shelley Winters, and one of the worst debut star turns ever in lifeless lead Helen Reddy. It’s really not the “I Am Woman” chanteuse’s fault. She’s being asked to fill some mighty big shoes, considering who Disney usually employed - Julie Andrews, Angela Landsbury - to essay such roles.
But Reddy is really a drag here, limited in what she can do and what she sings. “Candle in the Water” is a classic ballad, belted out with utter authority. The ineffectual “There’s Room for Everyone” sounds like an outtake from the Burt Bacharach/Hal David fiasco Lost Horizon. Elsewhere, “It’s Not Easy” and “Brazzle Dazzle Day” suffer from the same sonic struggles. Indeed, Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn’s treatment is likeable, it lifeless. One can easily see the Sherman Brothers bathing this story in their typical cinematic Broadway bravado (they had left the studio in the early ‘70s). Still, troopers like Rooney and Winters try to breath some energy into the banal lyrics, and for the most part they succeed. Along with Marshall’s memorable turn as Pete and some solid slapstick, Pete’s Dragon endures.
And when compared to the commercialized pap produced today, it definitely regains some of its royalty. One can forgive Reddy and instead experience some goofy joy during her daffy “beer keg dance” for “I Saw a Dragon”, and while dated, the combination of Pete and Elliot really does work visually. Bon Bluth, who would later go on to his own career as an animation guide, does a brilliant job bringing the character to life. At this point, one also needs to mention the contribution of surreal comic Charlie Callas as the “voice” of this particular cartoon creature. Offering nothing more than a series of mumbles and mouth farts, the famed ‘70s stand-up turns the big green lug into something both loveable and loony, memorable without being too odd or unusual for kids to appreciate. Indeed, when viewed through the lens of the standard family film, Pete’s Dragon is delightful. It never talks down to its audience, and appreciates elements that are both wistful and worrisome.
Though already available on DVD for quite some time, the new presentation finds Marshall (in voice over mode only, sadly) discussing Iwerks and the rigors of working under those bright yellow lights. He lets the viewer in on several key sequences in the film, while never once mentioning the lighthouse specially built for the production. Elsewhere, the disc includes a deleted storyboard sequence, an original song concept, demo versions of other tracks, and an interesting array of additional supplements. Unlike typical digital complements, The House of Mouse is in constant ‘sell’ mode. They never want the extras to overwhelm the film itself. Individuals who want more ‘how to’ and moviemaking mechanics will definitely feel left out of the added content conversation.
Still, Pete’s Dragon does deliver, surpassing the current trends in kiddie-oriented fare in both imagination and technical realization. Sure, the F/X look dated, done in a style that shows more than a post-modern viewer tends to tolerate, and there are sequences where the ‘corn factor’ far outweighs the artistic prowess at play. As a testament to its founder’s legacy, this is still somewhat lesser Disney. But when viewed in combination for what passes as House of Mouse merriment today - Beverly Hills Chihuahua, G-Force - it’s utterly brilliant.