Pete’s Dragon: High Flying Edition
The 1977 feature Pete’s Dragon never found any true level of popularity as one of the Disney offerings, and this new DVD release will confirm its sheer awfulness.
Pete (played by synthetic moppet Sean Marshall) is an orphan in 19th century New England who runs away from an abusive foster family. His best friend is a green, winged dragon with pink hair named Elliott. The dragon can make himself invisible, and for most of the film only Elliott can see him. The dragon doesn’t speak English, but communicates in a series of grunts and murmurs that Pete understands (wacky comic Charlie Callas is Elliott’s voice).
Pete somehow winds up at a lighthouse run by an old boozer (Mickey Rooney) and his daughter (Helen Reddy, though she looks young enough to be Rooney’s granddaughter). Some tumult arises with a pair of nasty snake oil salesmen (Jim Dale and Red Buttons) and the unexpected arrival of Pete’s nasty foster family (led by Shelley Winters, with a pre-"Taxi" Jeff Conaway in heavy make-up as a nasty son). There’s also a storm, a lot of fighting with Pete and Elliott getting captured and tied up by adult nasties, and too many feel-good and yuk-yuk-funny songs to tolerate.
Pete’s Dragon, at the base level, offers more than a passing resemblance to Oliver! with its elements of child abuse, a parentless boy as the protagonist, barroom shenanigans, and coping with death in a Victorian setting. Even Onna White, the Oscar-winning choreographer from Oliver!, is brought in to stage the dance sequences.
But whereas Oliver! had a glowing score and finely crafted performances, Pete’s Dragon provides a wildly awful score performed by a troop of old hams the overstate every gesture and syllable with inane gusto. First, let’s talk about the music - though, actually, the less said, the better. The film received an Oscar nomination for its tune "Candle on the Water," but that lost the award to "You Light Up My Life" (that should give you an idea how bad the song was, and what a crummy year 1977 was for movie songs). The film also offers such ditties as "Boo Bop BopBop Bop (I Love You, Too)," "Brazzle Dazzle Day" and "The Happiest Home in These Hills" (that’s performed by Shelley Winters, who falls in a mud pit at its conclusion).
As for the acting, one often gets the feeling that the film’s boom mike never worked properly - thus the cast was directed to project as loud as possible. Rarely has an ensemble gone so far to over-emote in their performances. The result is a horrid assault on the senses.
And if you want classic Disney animation, you’re in the wrong film. The cartoon effects here are closer to Hanna-Barbera for their monotonous visuals rather than the inventive Disney graphics. Elliott, with his Jay Leno chin and pot-bellied physique, isn’t exactly lovable. But he is easier on the eye than Red Buttons in drag or Helen Reddy raising her skirt to step-dance on a keg of beer.
However, there is one redeeming feature, albeit a small one - Jim Backus turns up in a brief role as the pompous town mayor who inevitably winds up on the receiving end of some slapstick knockabout. Yes, seeing Jim Backus covered in eggs is not exactly high art - but in this mess of a movie, it is the closest thing to genuine wit.