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A Second Look: Pete's Dragon (1977)
In 1977, Don Chaffey, Don Bluth, and Ken Anderson released Pete’s Dragon, which grossed $36 million at the box office. Starring Helen Reddy, Jim Dale, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Shelley Winters, Sean Marshall, Charlie Callas, Charles Tyner, Gary Morgan, Jeff Conaway, Carl Bartlett, Walter Barnes, Jane Kean, and Jim Backus, the film was nominated for the Academy Awards for Best Music, Original Song, and Best Music, Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Best Adaptation Score, the Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score- Motion Picture, and the Saturn Awards for Best Fantasy Film, Best Supporting Actor, and Best Costumes. A remake is to be released in August 2016.
Sometime in the 20th century, the orphaned Pete is on the run from a backwoods family named the Gogans who bought him as a slave. The only friend Pete has is the dragon, Elliott, who can’t talk but can fly, breathe fire and turn invisible. The two of them arrive in the Maine town of Passamaquoddy and with no one believing in dragons coupled with Elliott usually being invisible, trouble follows Pete.
A film that showcased how out of touch Disney was in the 1970s and that practically killed live action musicals for the company until 30 years later, Pete’s Dragon is a complete mess of a movie. One problem the film has is that there’s just way too much going on. For the main plot, there’s Pete trying to make his way in Passamaquoddy in his efforts to escape the Gogans, which also involves Elliott looking out for him in his own special way that usually turns into a lot of misunderstandings. That intersects with Nora who takes Pete in, but has a plot of her own which sees her constantly waiting for Paul to return as well. At the same time, Terminus has come into town to scam the people and when he finds there’s a dragon hanging out around town and attempts to catch Elliott. While all these stories do converge and finally become one, the film just becomes bloated by its middle and all the audience can really do is sit back and listen to the high number of songs that the film includes.
Those musical numbers are another problem the film seems to have. There’s really only a few of them that are memorable at all: “I Saw a Dragon,” “Candle on the Water,” and “Brazzle Dazzle Day.” The rest of them are entirely forgettable and do nothing but to pointlessly pad the film. What assists the feeling that these musical numbers are nothing but padding is how long they are as well, with more than half of them seeming like they should have ended quite a while before they actually did. It seems like is when the filmmakers didn’t know how to transition from one scene to the next, instead of trying to make the story better and tighten it, they put in a rather lengthy song before heading to whatever is next.
The characters aren’t that great either. While no one except Lampie and Terminus believe in Elliot, none of the townsfolk seem to be able to employ any logical sense of reasoning. This can really be seen when Pete and Elliott are first walking into town and Elliott is wrecking the place while invisible. It’s clearly not Pete that’s making all this mess because what happens is not something a child would be able to even do, but the townsfolk and the mayor all seem to believe it to be him. Miss Taylor, the schoolteacher, is one of the more idiotic characters the film employs, with her just blaming the ringing of the school’s bell on Pete when she could clearly see that he was in class when it started ringing.
This bleeds into the acting, too. It’s mostly terrible and the only one who seems to want to be working on the film is Rooney whose best scenes are at the beginning in the bar when he’s singing about seeing a dragon. As for everybody else, their performances make it pretty clear that they really only wanted to act in a Disney film. The worst performance is by Marshall as Pete, who can’t seem to make anything believable.