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Director Don Chafey's work is noteworthy to Disney enthusiasts as not only the first film from the House of Mouse to be released onto VHS but also their first foray into Dolby Stereo Sound. Unfortunately and quite sadly time has not been kind to the thirty-two year old Pete's Dragon which is painfully obvious rather quickly into this otherwise gorgeously packaged newly released High Flying Edition of the movie.
Pete's Dragon draws upon Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field's original story for this offbeat hybrid of Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl. Yet further research reveals that perhaps even Walt Disney Studios was unsure just what to do with the acquisition of the story which centers on a mistreated runaway orphan who leaves his abusive, exploitative family only to encounter a magical dragon which becomes his sole friend.
Taking it several steps further than simply employing an imaginary friend scenario nor opting for just a traditional fantasy, once the orphaned Pete arrives in Maine's seaside community of Passamaquoddy, the animated dragon that only Pete can see creates a series of disastrous but comical accidents the villagers then blame on the young boy.
Initially intending to use the material for creative television fodder in their popular "Disneyland" program around 1957 before it was ditched for twenty years-- the studio decided to try their Mary Poppins style luck once again in blending live action with animation by turning the work into a musical family comedy that boasted a budget of four and a half million dollars more than the critically lauded Poppins.
Yet, the two shouldn't even be compared as Poppins still holds up well in '09 (especially in its recent re-release) whereas Dragon never worked. And I believe this goes beyond the screenplay and can most likely be attributed to the appearance of the dragon itself which the animators lobbied to include opposed to the studio's much wiser belief that the film would've been better off if Elliott the Dragon was never actually seen.
While in the '70s, Walt Disney Studios was still crafting entertaining child and teen friendly offerings that blended gentle fantasy with reality like Freaky Friday, The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, and the two Witch Mountain films, ultimately the release of Pete's Dragon in 1977 given the recycled "spoonful of sugar" musical approach and poor mixture of elements made it seem as though it had been released in the wrong decade.
Although the movie earned two Academy Award nominations for its impressive music including the beautiful song "Candle on the Water" performed by Helen Reddy, the overly long 134 minute original cut was edited several times over throughout its many releases moving from the 128 minute theatrical running time to a 104 minute theatrical re-relase edit in the 1980s all the way down to dropping "Candle" altogether for a 94 minute TV presentation.
Essentially, it seemed that no matter how the movie was cut, it just never managed to hold an audience's attention in an era of not only superior Disney works made for far less money but also those that were more in touch with audiences who were presented with fantasies like Star Wars and musicals like Grease during this same time period.
Still admirably, Disney tried to stay true to its core audience of children with the G-rated title. Sadly though, even the inclusion of Sean Marshall, Jim Dale, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, and Shelley Winters could barely keep one from nearly nodding off due to not just the sheer length of the piece and but mostly considering the unsuccessful twenty-two minutes of screen time that was granted to the unconvincing sequences shared between Pete and Elliott the Dragon.
For even with the widescreen presentation and plethora of extras included on this High Flying Edition today such as early versions of songs etc., the failure of Dragon was in second-guessing the audience's desire to participate verses having everything spooned up with sugar.
Moreover by taking away the imagination of viewers and what they could've brought to the film a la Jimmy Stewart in Harvey, basically it left Disney fans with a rather weak film and dragon. And to this end, both the character and the movie don't contain nearly as much high flying excitement as witnessing Julie Andrews arrive via her famous umbrella from a cloud in the sky in Mary Poppins to really offer audiences "a spoonful of sugar."
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