Re:tro Re:view – Pete’s Dragon!

Jondee here at Passamaquoddy,

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Okay, I’ve seen Pete and his dragon in the Main Street Electrical Parade, but I never saw the film until getting the disc on Netflix. This was of course in anticipation of the Disney film set to open on August 12th starring Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford. It looks like that film is an entirely new direction, setting, from Maine to the Pacific Northwest with only Pete and the dragon the same. The original released in 1977 came during the Ron Miller era which lost track post-Walt which did give us Dragonslayer (1981), Tron (1982), and with Disney animation, Robin Hood (1973). Pete’s Dragon is an oddity. Another Disney film combining live action and animation like the earlier Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). The film’s story was from Golden Age screenwriters S.S. Field and Seton Miller; one can see that the dragon was invisible like the rabbit in Harvey (1950). The live action director was Don Chaffey whose earlier fantasy films, Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and One Million Years B.C. (1966), were brilliant. Don Bluth was the animation director, known for An American Tail (1986), Anastasia (1997), and the video game Dragon’s Lair which was the hit of arcades in 1983. The dragon’s animation, especially gestures, are classic Don Bluth. The songs were by the team of Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kasha who are known for “The Morning After” from Poseidon Adventure (1972).

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The film takes place sometime at the turn of the century, Pete (Sean Marshall) is chased by a hillbilly family, the Gogans led by Shelley Winters (also from Poseidon Adventure). Jeff Conaway from Taxi is one of the Gogan brothers. Marshall is sympathetic actor, but the strangeness of the narrative loses the friendship of a boy and his dragon. The invisible dragon, Elliot, throws the family into the muddy swamp so he can keep Pete away from another beating by the Gogans. They have bought the orphan Pete and have some paperwork to prove it, but there is apparently no child services or police at this time. Pete and Elliot share some apples and a song, Elliot has some muttering which Pete understands. They head off to the next town, Passamaquoddy which is in New England, though how a Southern swamp can be next door to it is confusing. The invisible Elliot wrecks havoc on the town including stumbling the mayor played by Jim Backus, Thurston Howell the Third. Running into Elliot is Mickey Rooney as Lampie, the town drunk. He’s a lighthouse keeper and somehow the town (and filmmakers) were ok with Lampie drinking. There’s another musical number where the bar patrons mock Lampie and he’s saved by his daughter, Nora, played by Helen Reddy. She is an Australian pop singer known for “I Am Woman.” Cute, she holds most of the film, and provides it’s memorable song “Candle on the Water” about her loneliness in the lighthouse with her husband lost at sea.

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She takes in Pete to live with her while Elliot is out in a beach cave. Added in this mix is con man, Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale) and his sidekick, Hoagy played by Red Buttons. It is typical Red Buttons goofiness.  The pair is more comedic than threatening, but their plan is not.  The town is suspicious over Pete since the fish are gone (not really explained) and he is sent to school. The school teacher is upset over Elliot earlier ripping her slip from her dress and Pete’s mention of his dragon gets him ruthlessly beaten with a ruler. So, a little kid escapes a family beating him up to get beaten up at school? I know this is modern sensibility looking at an earlier film, but this tone is dark. Dr. Terminus is convinced about the dragon and wants to cut off every piece of the dragon to sell. Of course, the Gogans turn up in town and a trap is set to capture Elliot by Dr. Terminus. The songs are ok as is the dancing.  It will be interesting to see the new film. I imagine that a song or two will be played digitally or sung as a lullaby to Oakes Fegley as Pete.  The dragon in that film looks furry with a cougar face, not cartoony.  Elliot will be more relatable if we can understand what he is saying instead of only Pete.  As for this movie, Three Candles on the Water out of Five! Have a “Razzle Brazzle Day”!

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