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Pete's Dragon Blu-Ray

 

Pete's Dragon: 35th Anniversary Edition

Published October 18, 2012

By Albert Gutierrez

"Watch out, or I'll take you apart!" - Nora

"We'd like to see you try it!" - Gogans

"It's Elliott!" - Pete

Pete's Dragon: 35th Anniversary Edition

Original Release: November 3, 1977

Blu-Ray/DVD Release: October 16, 2012

Film Length: 129 Minutes (back cover erroneously states 88 minutes)

The Movie:

As the film opens, young orphan Pete (Sean Marshall) appears to be flying. In actuality, he has run away from home, astride his invisible dragon, Elliott. The pair make their way to a swamp where they easily elude Pete's adoptive family, the Gogans. Pete and Elliott continue their journey well into the morning, which is topped of with a hearty breakfast of apples and a song, "Boo Bop Bop Bop Bop (I Love You, Too)." The pair decide to head for Passamaquoddy, a coastal town. As Pete strides into town, invisible Elliott following closely behind, chaos seems to erupt around him, thanks to Elliott's clumsiness and invisibility. The townspeople say Pete is bad luck, and try to catch him. Pete and Elliott hide, but are seen by Lampie, the town drunk.

Lampie goes to the bar to proclaim his strange find ("I Saw a Dragon") but is ridiculed by the patrons. His daughter Nora arrives to retrieve and take her father home. Nora later finds Pete, and asks if he needs a place to stay. When Pete discusses Elliott, she believes him to be an imaginary friend, and humors him. Pete even offers for Elliott to go out to sea and search for Nora's lost love, Paul. Although the town don't want Pete around, Nora tells them "there's room for everyone," and he is allowed to go to school. Soon, Nora and Lampie decide to take Pete in as one of their own, complete with song - the irresistably perky "It's a Brazzle-Dazzle Day." However, the Gogans have arrived in Passamquoddy, intent on getting back the boy. They team up with medical shyster Doc Terminus and his pal Hoagy - both of whom had been run out of town before - in order to capture Pete and Elliott for their own selfish needs.

Behind the Scenes:

Pete's Dragon can be looked upon as one of the last epic movie musicals from the studio system. By the 1970's, most of the major film studios functioned more as distributors, with movies produced by individuals that would hire out their own directors, set designers, composers, etc. Under the studio system, all these personnel would have been contracted to the studio, and not on a for-hire basis. This was how things were still done at Walt Disney Studios. They had continued to do all their filmmaking with specialized units devoted to particular aspects of production. If you needed a score, Irwin Kostal or George Bruns would most likely have been the ones conducting. Virtually any matte painting you saw in a Disney film was overseen or personally done by Peter Ellenshaw. Regular directors on the lot included Robert Butler, Vincent McEveety, Norman Tokar, or longtime Disney director Robert Stevenson.

This system was firmly in place when Pete's Dragon was first being developed as an installment for "Disneyland." Walt had bought the unpublished short story (by Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field) in 1962, although it ended up sitting on the proverbial shelf until 1975. Much had changed in the thirteen years since Elliott first arrived at Disney. Walt was gone, the Hollywood musical was passé, and the studio system was all-but-extinct... at every studio except Disney. Yet, even though Disney was still entrenched in their studio system and in-house personnel, they looked to outside sources for the director, writer, and composers. British director Don Chaffey was not contracted exclusively to Disney, but had worked with the studio before. In the early 1960's, he helmed Disney's Greyfriars Bobby and The Three Lives of Thomasina, both filmed in his native England. More recently, he completed Ride a Wild Pony in Australia. Pete's Dragon marked his fourth and final film with Disney, and the only one shot at the Disney Studios backlot, with location work also done in Morro Bay, California.

Writer Malcolm Marmorstein hadn't worked at Disney until he was recruited to script Pete's Dragon. At the time, his most well-known credits were his episode contributions on two ABC serials: the daytime soap "Dark Shadows" and the primetime drama "Peyton Place." After Pete's Dragon, Marmorstein contributed to the screenplay for 1978's Return from Witch Mountain. Perhaps the most high-profile non-studio personnel on Pete's Dragon were songwriters Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn - best known for their Academy Award-winning songs from The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. In an interview with David Koenig (Mouse Under Glass), Kasha noted how the former film dealt with water, and the latter with fire; these two ideas would form the foundation of Pete's Dragon signature song, "Candle on the Water."

Disney still kept certain aspects of production in-house, namely its animation. Longtime animator and art director Ken Anderson was given the important task of creating and designing Elliott. Anderson had lobbied for more visual sequences with Elliott, as the character was initially conceived as invisible for the entire film. Outside of Anderson, most of the animators were part of Disney's next generation of animation. None of the Nine Old Men worked on Pete's Dragon, a studio first on any of their animated films (hybrid and otherwise). The young animators on Pete's Dragon would later become well-known during the "Disney Renaissance" of the late-80's and early-90's. Featured within the animation team are now-big names like Don Hahn (producer of Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King), Ron Clements (co-director of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin), and Glen Keane (supervising animator for Ariel, Belle, and Aladdin). Don Bluth - who was Disney's chief animation competitor in the 1980's - served as animation director. Bluth would later direct the two-reel animated film The Small One, which featured Sean Marshall (titular Pete of Pete's Dragon) in his second and last Disney role: the young boy who must sell Small One.

My Thoughts:

As a child, I was not as familiar with Pete's Dragon as I was with Disney's other two major musicals: 1964's Mary Poppins and 1971's Bedknobs and Broomsticks. Both of those films were regularly rented from our Acme grocery store, while Pete's Dragon was relegated to occasional viewings on television or a once-in-a-blue-moon rental from the library (I guess our Acme never had it). Most of my childhood memories for the film are always in bits and pieces rather than as a feature film. This always skewed my idea of the film as being less musical than I remember, even though I still remembered some of the more memorable songs, like "Boo Bop BopBop Bop (I Love You, Too)," "Candle on the Water," and "Brazzle-Dazzle Day." Television versions often shortened the film to a mere 94 minutes by cutting out most of the other songs. Incidentally, a friend of mine gave me a bag of VHS tapes as a graduation present (long story), and one of tapes included a local syndicated version of Pete's Dragon. It allowed me to revisit the film after not seeing it for a few years. I enjoyed it greatly, and eventually bought the DVD, which allowed me to see the other musical numbers often cut out of the shortened versions.

Truthfully, I sometimes prefer my childhood-memory version of Pete's Dragon, which cut out a few of the songs. In the official 129-minute version, each song still feels relevant to the story, but there are just too many of them. Jumping into a show-stopping number every 10 minutes makes the film length feel like 150 minutes. Everyone sings in this movie, even when they don't have to. For example, "The Happiest Home in These Hills" can easily be removed from the film, and we'd still understand the Gogans' abusive role through "Bill of Sale" later in the film. Its deletion would also make "Boo Bop BopBop Bop (I Love You, Too)" the first signature song in the film, which I feel is more appropriate and sets the tone for the rest of the film. On the plus side, with so many songs, everyone gets their moment in the spotlight. Each song is still strong, either lyrically or in choreography, making each one a showcase for everyone's talents. But overall, so many of them simply bog the story down.

Likewise, the Gogans themselves are extraneous within the film. They never feel essential in the grand scheme of things, even if they are the prime reason Pete is running away. I don't want it to seem like I'm picking on the Gogans (given that I'd delete their first song), I just feel the film has enough villains already. The entire population of Passamaquoddy are dubious of Elliott's existence and - aside from Nora and Lampie - are not very kind to Pete. Doc Terminus and his assistant Hoagy are the closest we get to a real threat to everyone, even if Doc is dressed a bit too wacky to be taken seriously. The character looks like the mustache-twirling bad guy from a silent film. The look actually fits with the film's early-20th century setting, but Doc is never taken to a deeper level of villainy. Maybe it is because all the villains in this film are played for laughs. Their intent is serious, with issues such as child slavery and dragon homicide for medicinal purposes, but the actors all camp it up. Shelley Winters as Lena Gogan is terrifying, but also ridiculous, and the rest of her clan are oafish buffoons. And I'm never sure if Jim Dale is intentionally hamming up his role, or if Terminus was genuinely written as a such a weak villain.

Then again, the same could be said for Mary Poppins. That film does not feature any easily-identifiably-evil villains, either. As a child, I felt Mr. Dawes (Senior) filled that role. He was a towering and grumpy old man, and presented a serious threat to the characters, though not to the audience. Pete's Dragon, made with the clear intent of being the next Mary Poppins, repeats these character types, although I feel they don't work as effectively. Perhaps it is because Disney's villains are always better portrayed in animation than in live-action. Many of us can name ten compelling animated villains at the drop of a hat - Maleficent, Frollo, and Lady Tremaine come immediately to mind - but live-action characters takes a bit more time. Villains in the comedic films like The Absent-Minded Professor are intentionally weak. Disney's dramatic films do not feature easily-recognized good or evil either. The core of some of the more straightforward dramatic films is a focus on how the protagonists become better due to hardships or strangers they come across. It's the recurring theme in quite a few of the studio's timeless classics: Old Yeller, Pollyanna, and Mary Poppins.

I think that's what draws so many viewers to Pete's Dragon. The film ultimately wants the audience to sympathize with a lonely little boy, and see that he is okay by the film's end. This is a lot to ask from actor Sean Marshall, who plays Pete. He has to play opposite a lot of talented veterans, quite a feat for someone in his first major film role. The character of Pete allows him to use such awe-struck and wide-eyed innocence to his benefit. Just as Sean is thrust into an amazing world, Pete too becomes part of something grander than himself. He bonds immediately with characters like Nora and Lampie (Helen Reddy and the incomparable Mickey Rooney), immediately winning them over, as well as the audience. Marshall works best, however, when using his imagination. His scenes with Elliott are often the highlight of the picture, and his character absolutely shines when working with the bumbling, green dragon.

Part of my appreciation for Marshall's scenes with Elliott does stem from a certain amount of childhood envy. After all, Pete's Dragon is set in the "real world," in which it is the animated character that has crossed over. This isn't the escapist environment of Mary Poppins, Song of the South, or the "Alice in Cartoonland" shorts, where a real person manages to enter the animated world. With Elliott in our world, it opens the potential for other animated characters to cross over. A film like Pete's Dragon is literally living the dream of many a child (*cough* me *cough*) who wanted to play with Mickey Mouse, march with the Seven Dwarfs, or just give Cinderella a hug after her Torn Dress Moment.

Watching the film today through older and less-magical eyes, I sadly recognize that such a feat is impossible, but it does allow me to appreciate Elliott on an entirely different level. Even beyond the sheer joy of seeing an animated character in the real world, Elliott is a lovable character because his animation is so well drawn. When he's trailing Hoagy and Lampie in the cave, his frightened expressions are priceless. This is genuine emotion, skillfully captured by Disney's artisans. In addition, the quirky mumbling by Charlie Callas also help make Elliott into a lovable character. He doesn't speak in any discernable words, yet we still understand what he wants to convey. It's a language that is universal, because like his animation, it is based on pure emotion. Sometimes, animated films unintentionally bury the emotion of a character in their desire to capture artistic movement, such as the beautiful-but-sterile animation of Sleeping Beauty. With Pete's Dragon, we get a character who is driven by emotion, and it shows in spades in his performance. The animation here is Disney's best from the 1970's.


The kids kick up a storm, the only time that excessive dust should be allowed on your screen.

The Disc:

Video: 1.66:1 Widescreen

Audio: English 5.1 DTS-HD MA (1), French 5.1 Dolby Digital (2)

Subtitles: English (1), French (2), Spanish (3)

Chapters: 24

On both Blu-Ray and DVD, Pete's Dragon is presented in a 1.66:1 aspect ratio, the same ratio used on past DVD releases. It's still a few degrees off the original 1.75:1 ratio (as confirmed theatrical exhibitors' pressbooks), but the compromise does not negatively affect framing as Pan & Scan would.

The transfer itself is a wonder to behold. Colors are earthy and natural, especially important given much of the outdoor filming done. Some of the triple-matte shots (in which three layers are composited together: two live-action with animated in between) look a little worse for wear, but it still features better clarity and detail than older DVD transfers. Grain seems to be more rampant during these shots than others - notably on animated Elliott than in the live-action elements - which is to be expected. I would love for Disney to digitally re-composite these shots from scratch for a future release (similar to what they are doing for Mary Poppins), but for now, this Blu-Ray presentation is the best I've ever seen the film look, and it receives high marks from me.

On the audio side, we get a 5.1 DTS-HD MA track in English, and an additional 5.1 French track that's never been featured on other home media releases. Both are dynamic mixes, and the uncompressed DTS does provide a better experience. When reviewing this disc, I intentionally went to Chapter 10 first rather than watch the movie straight through. I simply had to hear how "Candle on the Water" would sound, and I was not disappointed.

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