Saturday, August 13, 2016
PETE’S DRAGON (Don Chaffey, 1977)
Pete (Sean Marshall) and his best pal, the cartoon dragon Elliott (voiced by Charlie Callas), run away from the abusive, dirt-encrusted Gogan family that bought the orphan to perform manual labor on their farm. In the musical PETE’S DRAGON the boy and his protector wander into the fishing community of Passamaquoddy hoping to make a fresh start. Elliott can turn himself invisible, which he does so as not to spook the townsfolk, but as might be expected with a big, friendly monster galumphing through town, he creates a mess in his wake, thus earning Pete the scorn of most of these new people.
Nora (Helen Reddy) spots Pete--but not a cloaked Elliott--as they prepare to take shelter in a cave along the coast. She operates the lighthouse with her probably alcoholic father Lampie (Mickey Rooney) and invites the boy to come with her for a warm home and meal. Like Pete, Nora is also adrift, having lost her fiancé Paul (Cal Bartlett) at sea a year ago. Nora quickly takes a shine to Pete, and he to her even if the rest of Passamaquoddy’s citizens hold his dragon accountable for the fishermen’s now-empty nets. More trouble arrives when Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale) and his traveling medicine show come crashing into town. The doc’s assistant Hoagy (Red Buttons) tells his quack boss about Elliott, whom he encounters when he and Lampie are getting loaded. Dr. Terminus considers a dragon to be a jackpot to harvest for his elixirs and potions and plots to acquire Elliott, whether by purchase or force.
With his bottom-heavy physique and two small, pink, bat-like wings, Elliott does not look a creature that nature designed to function. The same goes for the disproportional PETE’S DRAGON. Nearly three-quarters of its slightly more than two hours seem like first act establishment. There’s a remarkably small amount of time devoted to Pete and his animated friend but more than enough to go around for the shilling and scheming by the snake oil salesman. The pacing lumbers too. When multiple conflicts converge in the final quarter, the resolutions take seemingly forever.
Although the song “Candle on the Water” and the original song score earned the film two Academy Award nominations, this is not a classic Disney musical. The music and lyrics by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn result in a set of passable but unmemorable show tunes. The Broadway-style mugging in the performances attempts to inject feeling into the emotional void of a screenplay. Pete ought to be a really sympathetic character. The film doesn’t make a fuss about the treatment he previously endured, but it’s unmistakable that the Gogans beat the boy. Nevertheless, Pete gets lost among the other storylines. Everything that unfolds happens in such a schematic manner that it fails to achieve the impact that a more focused script might have.
The hand-drawn animated Elliot is integrated nicely into the live action, but the character lacks personality. The biggest miscalculation may be having Elliott communicate through gibberish and clicks rather than speaking (although he can say “boo”). This just leads to is Pete performing a lot of translation. When Pete chastises Elliott for ruining everything in town and then makes up with him, it’s a potent emotional moment because it’s a rare occasion that the two are interacting rather than Pete serving as a conduit to explain Elliott’s side of the conversation. Remove the fantastical element and PETE’S DRAGON is essentially a boy and his dog searching for a home, yet it fails to develop the relationship between them or Pete and his newfound family beyond broad strokes.