Toon Talk: Pete's Dragon High Flying Edition
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by Kirby C. Holt
MPAA Rating: G
Kid ‘N’ Dragon
1977 was a banner year for American films, what with such cinematic touchstones as Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind among the year’s releases. Oh yeah, and there was a little movie called Star Wars too. Of course, Disney had its contributions as well, beginning with the animated summer hit The Rescuers. The studio closed out the year with its holiday release, Pete’s Dragon, re-released on DVD this week in a new “High-Flying Edition”.
A musical fantasy combining live action and animation, Pete’s Dragon was then Disney’s latest (and, in retrospect, last) attempt to recreate the phenomenal success of 1964’s Mary Poppins. Following 1971’s similar foray, Bedknobs and Broomsticks (which will also see a new DVD release next month), Pete’s Dragon, despite an all-star cast and Academy Award nominated music, didn’t exactly reach Poppins heights, creatively or commercially. Yet it has remained a fan favorite amongst Disney enthusiasts, mostly due to the comical charms of its toon title character.
Based on a story by S.S. Field and Seton I. Miller, Pete’s Dragon tells a typical Dickensian orphan tale, with the twist being that its Oliver, Pete (played by Sean Marshall), has a big green dragon named Elliott (voiced by comedian Charlie Callas and animated by such future A-listers as Don Bluth and Glen Keane) as his protector/“guardian angel”. At the start, Elliot helps Pete escape from the cruel clutches of the Gogan family, a filthy clan of hillbillies led by messy matriarch Shelley Winters (and also featuring a pre-Grease/Taxi/Celebrity Rehab Jeff Conaway).
The pair of unlikely heroes find themselves in the quaint New England sea port town of Passamaquoddy, where the now invisible Elliott causes all sorts of dragon-y mischief, including spooking the often-drunk local lighthouse keeper Lampie (Mickey Rooney), whose level-headed daughter Nora (Helen Reddy, fresh from her debut as a singing nun in Airport 1975) nevertheless ends up taking in the wayward waif. Their makeshift family bliss is short-lived, however, as the shady traveling medicine man Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale) soon arrives in town, along with his bumbling apprentice Hoagy (Red Buttons).
Once this scheming duo catches wind that a dragon is hidden in their midst, the crafty Doc hatches a plot to turn the creature into a one-stop-shopping cash cow for his phony remedy business. Enlisting the Gogans to get that pesky Pete out of the way, he plans to capture Elliott … except that dragons aren’t so easily caught. All ends happily (and musically), thanks to the fearless Elliott, who, having done his job in finding Pete a good home, bids him farewell (à la Mary Poppins herself) and flies off to help another kid in trouble.
With drab direction from Don Chaffey (best known for the terrific Jason and the Argonauts) and now crude-appearing special effects, Pete’s Dragon is showing its age these days. But with sprightly tunes by Oscar winning songwriters Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn (who would receive two more Academy nominations for this film’s song score and original song “Candle on the Water”) and some hammy but winning performances (chiefly from Tony Award winner Dale … and not from the stiff Grammy Award winner Reddy), the film remains an enjoyable if slight family entertainment.