Film

Pete's Dragon: High-Flying Edition (1977)


Pete's Dragon

Director: Don Chaffey
Cast: Helen Reddy, Sean Marshall, Jim Dale, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Shelley Winters
Distributor: Walt Disney Home Video
Studio: Walt Disney Studios
UK Release Date: 2009-08-18
US Release Date: 2009-08-18

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.

6

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.


In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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