Every review by Judge Clark Douglas you don't like is probably one penned by his pet dragon.
Our review of Pete's Dragon (Blu-ray) 35th Anniversary Edition, published November 5th, 2012, is also available.
It's a brazzle dazzle day!
"I need him! Look, deliver Elliot to me and the fiver is yours plus a special growth formula that's guaranteed to bring on puberty about a year early…and that's better than a dragon, eh?"—Dr. Terminus
Facts of the Case
Pete (Sean Marshall, The Fitzpatricks) is a young orphan on the run. His adoptive parents are merciless monsters who have condemned him to a life of slavery. Pete is determined never to let those cruel adults catch him again, so he keeps running until he reaches the town of Passamaquoddy. There he receives food and comfort from the charming Nora (Helen Reddy, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band) and her father Lampie (Mickey Rooney, Breakfast at Tiffany's). Pete likes Nora and Lampie, and entrusts them with a secret: he has a pet dragon named Elliot (voiced by Charlie Callas, Silent Movie). Unfortunately, Pete's secret is also discovered by the villainous Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale, Hot Lead and Cold Feet). Will Pete be able to protect Elliot from Dr. Terminus' evil schemes?
I had not seen Pete's Dragon since the early days of my childhood, so I was keen to give it another look when I heard Disney was providing the film with a new "High Flying Edition" DVD release. Like many others, I have a fondness for Disney musicals. Pete's Dragon was the last of Disney's live action/animation hybrids (not counting their involvement in Who Framed Roger Rabbit), and unfortunately it was the weakest of such films. It's by no means a terrible viewing experience (particularly in contrast to some of the mind-numbingly awful things passing as children's entertainment these days), but the vast majority of the film feels fairly derivative and uninspired.
The film is perhaps somewhat more dominated by comedy than many of these films, and the comedy is the least successful aspect of the film. Most of the gags are born from a rather ridiculous gimmick: Elliot's invisibility. Pete has no problem telling a whole lot of people that his dragon exists, but for some reason he tells Elliot to become invisible every time he is around these same people. As such, there are a lot of scenes in which the invisible Elliot will romp around the town destroying things. Pompous stereotype after pompous stereotype is knocked into the mud, dragged through wet cement, splattered with eggs, etc. Afterwards, Pete is blamed for all of Elliot's bumbling actions. This gets very old very fast, and it's a shame that so much of the film is devoted to such poorly-executed gags.
A good sign that your musical is in trouble: the music isn't particularly good. To be sure, there are a handful of fun numbers, but an exceptionally high percentage of these tunes are nearly unlistenable. Things open on a terrible note with "The Happiest Home in These Hills," a redneck squawk-fest that would more at home in a Rob Zombie film (yes, I exaggerate a little, but you get the idea). Equally unfortunate is Mickey Rooney shouting his way through, "I Saw a Dragon" (which is also accompanied by an eyebrow-raising scene of drunken debauchery that seems a bit extreme for a movie that is clearly aimed at young kids). The lyrics of "Boo Bop BopBop Bop (I Love You Too)" are so mawkishly sentimental that they become unintentionally comic. Pete serenades his dragon, "Look in your eyes and you whisper sweetly/You don't match in size but we fit so neatly/It's nice waking up when you're close beside me/humming in my ear." Ahem.
The animated sequences should have been the highlight of the film, but these are underwhelming as well. This is partially due to the fact that Don Bluth's animation never really makes Elliot a particularly interesting character, but mostly because the interaction between Pete and Elliot never seems very convincing. Whether due to poor direction or some other factor, Pete generally seems to be looking right through Elliot, never achieving the sort of comfortable interaction that defined most of Disney's other features using this technique.
Disney has done a mostly fine job with the transfer, offering a clean and sharp image that is almost entirely free of flaws. Well, most of the time, anyway. Unfortunately, whenever Elliot appears, the image becomes afflicted with very heavy grain that is rather distracting. I suppose there wasn't much that could be done about this, considering that so much attention has been paid to making the rest of the film look good. Audio is pretty solid throughout, particularly during the musical numbers (this was the first film Disney ever recorded in Dolby Stereo sound), though some of the dialogue is just a little bit muffled.
The extras included on the disc are a grab bag of assorted oddities. You get a featurette about the live action/animation process used in the making of the film, an excerpt from the Disney Family Album television show, an archival clip of Walt Disney speaking about the animation process, an original song concept, a deleted storyboard sequence, demo recordings, a Donald Duck cartoon called "Lighthouse Keeping," some text notes on the production of the film, a stills gallery, a cheesy interactive game and the theatrical trailer. Most of this stuff is rather lightweight, though you may have fun browsing through it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
There are still plenty of small pleasures to be found in Pete's Dragon, particularly in the supporting performances. Jim Dale is a hoot as the wicked Dr. Terminus, offering a couple of musical comedy sequences that almost make up for all of the misfires. We also get a fun turn from Red Buttons as Dale's dim sidekick, and it's always nice to see Jim Backus (who plays the befuddled mayor).
Though I did enjoy moments in Pete's Dragon, I can only recommend this one to hardcore Disneyphiles. The rest of you would be better off with Bedknobs and Broomsticks or the great Mary Poppins. The high-flying edition doesn't really offer enough new material to warrant an upgrade from the 2001 release.
Guilty of failing to be the sort of delightful family film we've come to
expect from Disney over the years.
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