First Time Watch: Pete’s Dragon (1977)


By Christian DiMartino

Pete’s Dragon is a Disney family fantasy comedy musical that would be a lot more successful if they left out the “musical” part.

For years, the urge to see this film has been there. Plenty of the Disney classics, both animated and live action, are wonderful, and with Disney+ unveiling most of these films to the public, it has only been a matter of time. Perhaps this film is seen as a timeless classic in the eyes of some, and for whatever reason, the fact that I hadn’t seen it made me feel left out, which I hate. It also felt funny reviewing David Lowrey’s remake of Pete’s Dragon on here four years ago because it made me feel “uncultured.”

Now that the experience of Pete’s Dragon is over, I wish I could say that it were better. The public is more than welcome to love it, and the film is definitely not without its pleasures. Yet the film I saw felt like a bit much. For a plot that seems so simple, it also feels overtly busy, with just a few too many characters, not to mention the film feels long at a little over two hours, not to mention that its plot is further dragged out by musical numbers. Somewhere in between though is pleasant charm, which is ultimately mostly worth looking past the faults.

The film follows Pete, a young boy who has a friendly dragon named Elliott. Where Elliott came from is sort of a mystery, but Elliott has the ability to turn invisible. Pete is desperately trying to escape the clutches of his ratched, singing, dancing, abusive, hillbilly family, and if that sentence was a lot to take in, wait until they’re introduced into the movie. By the opening scene, Pete and Elliott escape to a small town that is difficult to pronounce (a running joke throughout), in which Elliott, while invisible, wreaks havoc and leaves Pete with the blame. Mickey Rooney plays a lighthouse keeper, and the sole witness to Elliott. Helen Reddy plays Rooney’s daughter, a nice lady who finds Pete and decides to take him in. There is also a storyline involving a group of con artists (Jim Dale and Red Buttons) who catch wind of Elliott and decide they can cash in on him. Slap on the aforementioned singing dancing abusive hillbillies on top of it, and there’s the synopsis.

The film is live-action, with Elliott being a cartoon drawing. What’s unique about Elliott is the amount of expression that this character can deliver. He doesn’t say a single word; it’s mostly just grunts and snorts. Elliott still ends up feeling like more than just a two-dimensional character though, and that they could breathe interesting life to him is worth mentioning. The problem is though, often times Pete’s Dragon has so much going on that they forget to focus on… well, Pete’s Dragon.

That’s not to say that I didn’t mind some of these characters though. Rooney’s character is basically Rooney, and that alone can always bring the charm. Reddy is also a delight- she has a smile that can light up a room. Even Dale and Buttons, thrown a little too into the game, get their moments. In particular, a certain song that they sing, ironically, just might’ve ended up being Disney’s current mantra. The song is called “Every Little Piece,” and it goes something like:

“Can’t you hear that jingle, jangle sound?
Oh, yeah!
It’s money, money, money
By the pound”

Not to mention, they sing that stanza repeatedly. Present day Disney took it just a tad too far though.  

 These characters, and the actors playing them, bring enough charm. Yet I think the film would’ve been much stronger had it just focused on Pete and Elliott, with a touch of Reddy and Rooney. It also would’ve helped if they wouldn’t have made it a musical. So, musicals and I have a weird relationship. I claim to not like them, but I love many. There are decent songs in Pete’s Dragon, but often times, whenever these characters burst into song, it doesn’t feel earned. The situation that they are in whenever they have their music number doesn’t exactly feel worthy of a song, and I get that in a musical that doesn’t matter. Here though, it took me out of the movie almost every time, and it often made the experience feel just a little too long. 

 If you were a child of the 70’s, or you grew up watching this film, chances are you love it and I’m an idiot. To me, it’s pretty okay.

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