Saturday, February 27, 2016

Disney Watch: Pete's Dragon (1977)

Last week I noticed Disney had put out a trailer for a new version of Pete's Dragon starring Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford.  "Hey, that's a movie that could stand a re-make," I said to myself.  And then I realized - I'm pretty sure I haven't seen the actual Pete's Dragon (1977) since its theatrical release or sometime pretty close to it.  Honestly, I only really had a memory of a Disney record and picture book we had around when I was very small, and it's entirely possible that's all I remember, and that I never saw the movie at all.

Here's a link to that new trailer.

I confess, this is a movie of its time and didn't do a lot for me.  And, frankly, it's hard to see how the 1977 version would appeal to kids today except in the bits with limited animation, which is less of the movie than you'd think.  In a classic economizing move, the character is "invisible" for most of the movie when he's in a scene.

The movie is also a musical, which I don't think is a problem, but it's hard to pick out any big singles from the music, even with recording star Helen Reddy in a featured role.  The songs also just sort of happen, and they happen a lot, so the story, which is slight to begin with, keeps slamming to a halt for extended singing and dancing sequences that aren't exactly spectacular.   It's all pretty far from the rejuvenated Disney we'd get first with The Little Mermaid and then again with The Princess and the Frog and Tangled.

Pete is an orphan on the run, having escaped a sort of hillbilly family, The Gogans, headed up by Shelley Winters and featuring Jeff Conaway of Grease fame.  They're a sort of proto-Fratelli's from Goonies, who've adopted Pete as slave labor for their farm.  He's been befriended by Elliot when the action for the movie begins, and they're on the run.

Of the many annoying bits in this movie, the Gogans top the list.  While buffonish, it never really works, and it just feels like white noise the whole time they're on the screen.  So, of course, they have at least two big numbers.

Pete arrives in a Maine fishing village where Elliot's invisible but still-tangible arrival causes some chaos, Pete is blamed, and runs off to a place near a lighthouse where Helen Reddy lives with her father, Mickey Rooney, a raging alcoholic - something we all grew up finding adorable on the big screen.  Mickey Rooney has seen Elliot and believes in him, but none of the townsfolk do until Elliot invisibly trashes the school house.

The setting, by the way, seems to be the late 19th/ early 20th Century window that Disney staked a claim on when it started making live-action pictures and didn't seem to let go of until some time in the 1980's.   I suppose it was an echo of both Walt's vision of a utopian America as seen on Main Street, USA, but it's also when and where musicals were set in big Broadway shows for a surprising number of shows.

Thus, we have a "Doc Terminus" and his sidekick (played by the omnipresent Red Buttons of the late 1970's), working a medicine show and being all slimy and whatnot.

The movie runs two hours, and with so many unnecessary musical numbers, it's a bit puzzling why they didn't trim it down to 90 minutes or less.

I don't hate the movie, but it's also an artifact from not just a particular era of movie-making, but an era of very specific Disney movie making of which I've never been a particularly huge fan.  The best news about the movie is that the parts with Elliot, both visible and otherwise, are well imagined, the combo of animation and live-action works very well, and Elliot is likable, if everyone else if a bit bland.

I dunno.  I guess just wait for the remake.  I suspect on a second go-round, the story will be leaner and more fun.

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