PETE’S DRAGON (1977)
Starring Helen Reddy, Sean Marshall, Jim Dale, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Jim Backus, Shelley Winters, Jane Kean, Charles Tyner, Gary Morgan, Jeff Conaway and the voice of Charlie Callas.
Screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein.
Directed by Don Chaffey.
Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures. 128 minutes. Rated G.
If you want to see how much animation has moved forward in the last 30-some years, all you have to do is take a gander at Pete’s Dragon.
The movie was undoubtedly state-of-the-art when it rolled out of the Disney Ink & Pen Building in 1977. It was a mix of live action filming and animation over ten years before Who Framed Roger Rabbit? came out. The animation was supervised by Don Bluth, who would eventually leave Disney and become a legendary 80s animator who created such things as An American Tale, The Secret of Nimh and the video game Dragon’s Lair. (Using his Pete’s dragon experience, perhaps?)
Yet, the animation here, probably due to its outdatedness and how much film art has since moved, looks surprisingly awkward to modern eyes. There is an early scene where the adorable little Disney scamp named Pete (Sean Marshall) is singing his love to his pet dragon Elliott (who was voiced in a series of burbles and coos by seventies comedian Charlie Callas) and the boy and dragon go face to face. You don’t buy for a second that these two are together, in fact it is distracting to note where the little actor’s face ends and the animation begins.
Of course there are a lot of the archaic filmmaking techniques on display here that don’t even touch on the animation. Eventually Elliott takes up residence in a seaside “cave” – though it is blatantly a studio set with stock footage of crashing waves inserted into a small section of the screen.
It’s probably not just a coincidence that Elliott the dragon is invisible during about half of his scenes.
It is not just the filmmaking techniques that have changed since the release of Pete’s Dragon. Simple social mores have changed as well. For example, both Mickey Rooney and Red Buttons’ characters are supposed to be falling down drunk most of the time and it is played for laughs – in a kid’s movie!
Pete’s Dragon was the starring debut of then-pop star Helen Reddy. In 1977 she was still riding pretty high the charts (only the year before she had the huge hit “Ain’t No Way To Treat A Lady”), but at the time no one could know that her string of hits was just starting to dry up. (Her album Music, Music, which was released the same year as Pete’s Dragon was a bit of a stiff and she only had one more top 40 single afterwards, a cover of Cilla Black’s “You’re My World.”) This was not her first acting job. Reddy had made a splash in a supporting role as a singing nun in Airport ’75 – a role that was memorable enough that it was mocked mercilessly a few years later in the classic comedy Airplane!
Reddy plays a New England lighthouse keeper’s daughter (though she essentially runs the place herself because dad’s always drunk) who befriends an orphaned boy passing through town – a boy who just happens to have a pet dragon. The rest of the townspeople are certain that the boy is up to no good, but she saves him and makes him a part of the family.
Reddy is just fine in a pretty thankless role. It’s a given that she is a much better singer than an actress so she feels most at ease when belting out some of the less-than-memorable songs here than she is interacting with other characters, but she mostly has a casual and pleasant acting style. I believe “Candle on the Water” – which is the strongest song here – may have even become a very minor hit. At least I seem to vaguely remember it from somewhere, which is more than I can say for any of the other songs here.
Still, Pete’s Dragon did essentially spell the end of her acting career, though the final nail was pounded into the coffin when she had a supporting role in the next year’s infamous BeeGees/Peter Frampton flop Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. It is a pleasant surprise, actually that all these years later Reddy is currently working on her first film since doing a bit part in Disorderlies with the Fat Boys in 1987 – an indie called The Perfect Host with David Hyde Pierce of Frasier fame.
The rest of the story is pretty typical of Disney’s lost years – the animation department turned out a lot of treacle between the golden days and their early 90s comeback with The Little Mermaid and Beauty & the Beast.
All these years later, Pete’s Dragon is an interesting footnote in Disney history. It no longer exactly works as a movie, but it is noteworthy as a historical trinket.
Jay S. Jacobs
Copyright ©2009 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: August 18, 2009.