Pete’s Dragon (1977)

Out of all the Disney remakes in the past decade, I think the most disappointing by far is Pete’s Dragon (2016).

Oh, most of the others are terrible, that’s a given.  But at worst, they were pointless.  When remaking The Lion King or Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast, their OG counterparts were already time-honored masterpieces.  How do you improve upon perfection?  The pattern dictates that what you do is respond to bad faith arguments from Reddit posts and plug up plot holes and inject wokeness in response to perceived criticisms no one really had in the first place.  Did anyone really get upset over the fact Nala didn’t get enough screentime?  Or that Jasmine wasn’t independent enough?  Or that Dumbo stayed happily in the circus?  Or that the staff in the Beast’s castle were similarly penalized by being turned into objects?  If you’re a troll or a writer for CinemaSins, you might care, but the OG movies are so well executed they suspend your disbelief. 

Really, their efforts could be better spent recreating their lesser-loved animated features: Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, The Black Cauldron, Song of the South, The Great Mouse Detective, et cetera.  Yeah, these movies had lackluster responses at the box office, but to say they had nothing redeemable about them is far from the truth.  No sense in throwing out the babies with the bathwater.  But (sigh!) Nope.  Better to reinvent the wheel, bank on audience recognition of the property, and make changes no one asked for.  Pete’s Dragon is one such case study.  For all its faults, they added a lot of faux-mysticism, turned Pete into an American Mowgli, and say nothing of the absurd redesign of the titular Elliott.

The 1977 film has A LOT going against it, and like Song of the South, it’s a mostly live action musical with animated characters set in a romanticized American setting and its primary source of recognition is its sole representation in the Disney theme parks as the animated characters.

So what are the movie’s true faults they could have improved upon?  Deign this delightful, if daffy depiction of this darn dragon drama!

The plot: Pete (Sean Marshall) is running away from his wicked foster family, a clan of nasty hillbillies, the Gogans, led by Ma Gogan (Shelley Winters).  It’s clear they only adopted him so he could be their serf, but thanks to his pal Elliott (Charlie Callas), a massive, fire-breathing, invisibility-powered dragon, they elude capture.  The two saunter into the Maine fishing village of Passamaquaddy, and Elliott’s antics stir outrage in the townsfolk, thinking Pete’s causing trouble.  A kindly lighthouse keeper, Nora (Helen Reddy) takes Pete in and tolerates his chatter about Elliott, believing this invisible dragon to be an imaginary friend.  Her father, Lampie (Mickey Rooney) is the only one to have seen Elliott, but he’s also the town drunk, so…

A con artist named Doc Terminus (Jim Dale) and his intern Hoagy (Red Buttons) blow into town to hock their snake oil remedies, and when Doc believes Elliott to exist, dollar signs appear in his eyes and he realizes every part of a dragon’s anatomy can provide pharmaceutical wonders from clearing up zits to curing a cold.  When the Gogans stumble into town, Pete and Elliott have to watch each other’s backs.

How’s the writing?:  There’s a lot to work with here, and all of these elements can be made to work, if the writers really took the time to flesh out any one of these plots.  Problem is, it looks as though they took a lot of disparate elements, Mad Libs-style, and threw them at the wall to see what stuck. 

If the movie focused on Pete, Elliott, and Nora conflicting with Terminus and the Gogans, that’d make for a fairly compelling drama.  But there are even more hamfisted conflicts thrown in that muddy things, drag out the pacing, and pad out the movie’s runtime.  For example, I didn’t even mention that Nora had a fiance whom was lost at sea, and movie thinks it has time to explore her pining and answer what happened to him.  There’s at least two scenes strictly about how the fisherman of the village blame Pete and/or Elliott for the sudden disappearance of fish which leads to its own musical number (“There’s Room for Everyone”) so saccharine it’ll makeIt’s a Small World (After All)” look like speed metal.  There’s a couple of scenes about a schoolmarm who takes an immediate dislike to Pete, which results in Elliott making things worse.  The Mayor has a few scenes where he ends up looking foolish in trying to be official.  Even songs like “Brazzle Dazzle Day” and “I Saw a Dragon” could be fun…but man, do they just go on and stall the narrative enturely.

There’s a ton of characters and too many plotlines to focus on, and while they all tangentially tie back to Elliott and Pete, you keep getting bored, wondering what all of these stories are building to.

Does it give the feels?: As I said, the movie features Nora and how her poor heart aches over the alleged loss of her fiance, Paul.  The movie even gives her her own showstopper ballad, the Oscar- nominated “Candle on the Water”, which is pleasant enough.  The problem is that the movie tries to frame her heartache as foolish, despite Paul’s heroic return at the denouement.  When Nora tries to tell Pete Elliott is just imaginary, Lampie scoffs, chastising her for wrecking the boy’s (supposed) overactive imagination, when she still clings to the vain hope that her loved one is still alive.  Frankly, it’s kind of insulting. 

For my money, I’ve been more partial to the relationships in buddy movies where there’s a truly deep and loving friendship between two leads: Mowgli and Baloo,  Christopher Robin and Winnie the Pooh, Nick Wilde and Judy Hopps, you get the idea.  This movie tries to aim there…and it almost gets it.  When Pete seeks solace in a cave after Elliott caused havoc in town, we see Elliott’s tender heart, easily shattered by the visibly angry Pete who blames the dragon.  I do like seeing them being playful and loving together, but Pete’s anger doesn’t feel genuine.  He says “We’re in a lot of trouble and it’s all your fault!”.  I feel like a kid Pete’s age would react more that the town hates him, not them, or that he’s scared of being found by the Gogans.  While Elliott’s reactions are believable, Pete’s aren’t, which puts it in the “so close, yet so far” category.

Who makes it worth it?: Elliott is far and away the best thing about this movie.  There is nothing about Elliott I do not like.  His design and animation was staffed some of the biggest names in animation years later such as Randy Cartwright (supervising animator of Carpet in Aladdin and adult Copper in The Fox and the Hound), Henry Selick (Director of The Nightmare Before Christmas), Don Hahn (Producer of The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast), Ron Clements (Co-producer of The Little Mermaid and The Princess and the Frog), and Glen Keane (Supervising animator for Ariel, the Beast, and Tarzan), among others.  But the head of the animation department for the movie was future Disney rival, Don Bluth.  In fact, he and his friends John Pomeroy and Gary Goldman not only worked on Elliott, too, but the three would later go on the found Don Bluth productions.

Elliott doesn’t speak, but comedian Charlie Callas burbles, warbles, chatters, snorts, and trills in a totally unique and charming way.

His personality is delightful.  He’s a big sweetheart whose sole goal is the well-being of this one child, like a great dane puppy who lives and dies by his boy’s approval.  He’s clumsy, but he can seek out missing persons and thwart any ill-intentioned threat.  He can be spooked by his own shadow, but goes into a full-on fearless rage when Pete’s in danger.

In fact I love everything about Elliott except whenever he’s not on screen, and I mean that in the most literal sense possible.  Because when he’s not on screen, it’s obnoxious, especially when he’s invisible.  More than half the movie is people talking about Elliott and often explaining what he’s doing, and gives the movie a chance to show off its less-than-stellar effects.  At least when we can see Elliott, we’re distracted by the flawless animation and character acting.

Best quality provided: Elliott.

What?  I’m serious.  I just gushed about how and why Elliott is bar none the best thing about this film.  Everything else: the songs, the characters, the writing, the humor, the set design, the costumes…they’re all “meh” at best.  To the point where I barely think of anything else in the movie that’s worth discussing.  Maybe “Candle on the Water”, which I can say is pleasant.

Let me reiterate that: pleasant.  Elliott himself is phenomenal.

What could have been improved: Remember watching something like That’s so Raven back when it was on Disney channel?  Remember those moments when Raven found herself stuck in some wildly precarious situation, wearing a janitor’s uniform, complete with mustache, and she’s screaming, bug-eyed and flailing?  And that stale canned laughter that’s trying to convince you that it’s the height of comedy?  Yeah, well, Pete’s Dragon wishes it could be that nuanced and subtle.

I’ve seen less ham at pig farms.  Sean and Helen are fine, but all the other characters are wild, nutty caricatures, even when it’s not needed.  Even the great Mickey Rooney goes through several scenes in a drunken stupor, slurring and babbling.  At least Jim Dale’s having a great time, swishing his cape and literally twirling his handlebar mustache.  But the rest of these actors are chewing every bit of the scenery, trying to match the cartoon dragon that isn’t really there.  The song “I Saw a Dragon” is smorgasbord of insanity from three grown men posing as a dragon, a wide angle shot of a neighing horse, kicking glasses, dancing on barrels, and exploding suds.  It’s reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast‘s “Gaston”, only crazier.  And that one was animated!

Another issue is the effects.  I feel I can be critical of this since they did get a little too big for their britches and not only tried some effects that aren’t convincing, but tried to make them the showcase of the scenes. Watching Sean Marshall bob up and down smoothly on Elliott’s neck looks super weird and that’s clearly a plane of plexiglass the mayor walks right into at the end.

Lastly, there’s the continuity of Elliott and his invisibility.  I get why this was made to be a feature, but aside from watching Pete talking to dead air, motivations change on a dime as to why Elliott chooses to be invisible.  It makes sense when at the beginning so as to not scare the townsfolk, but Elliott soon wrecks fences and steps in wet cement seemingly with puckish delight.  Nora keeps dismissing Elliott’s existence, yet Pete never bothers to have them meet, and she doesn’t see him until the film’s climax, long after Pete knows she’s trustworthy.  Even when the mayor wants to honor Elliott for saving his life, the dragon remains invisible for a sloppy and confusing punchline (the aforementioned plexiglass gag).  At one point, Pete and Nora are flocked by fascinated schoolmates showering the boy with questions about the dragon, whom Pete assures is there with them (we soon see a pile of debris depress to indicate Elliott sitting next to him).  When fishermen accuse Pete of causing bad luck, Nora launches into “There’s Room for Everyone”, which, thematically, would have been the absolute best time to have Elliott appear and play with the kids and show he meant no harm.  But I guess the animation was too expensive or something. Kinda sucks.

Verdict: The songs are pedestrian.  The characters are total hams.  The motivations are scattered.  The plots are numerous.  But by Ambigous Deities, that Elliott.  That sweet, playful, charming Elliott.  I might not ever have watched this even a second time if Elliott were not a part of this movie.  That’s why I give Pete’s Dragon five Brazzle Dazzle Days out of ten.

Now why haven’t we seen THIS on Disney+ yet?!

Author: TAP-G

Writer, former podcaster, entertainment enthusiast. Movies and media have the power to shape our world and vice versa. Let’s take a deeper look at them.

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