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EndEARing & Underrated: Pete’s Dragon

endearing and underrated, this happy place blog film series celebrating the unappreciated films from the Disney canon.

I don’t know about you guys but I have been enjoying these entries so much! Every time I open a new one, I’m instantly ready to watch whatever film they are focusing on! Now don’t hurt me… I haven’t seen Pete’s Dragon but after Melissa from Mouse on the Mind came by and made such a strong case for it… I must do that. Very very soon. Hope you enjoy!

When I was a kid, The Scarecrow was my imaginary friend. We’d talk late into the night about this or that, and when I went for long car trips, I always made sure to clip the seatbelt next to me so he’d be safe if we got into an accident. He was my best friend, and to me, he was really, really real.

And that’s why, when Estelle told me that she wanted to produce a series on underrated Disney films, I knew that there was only one film I could write about: Pete’s Dragon.

Though it came out six years before I was born, Pete’s Dragon played a huge role in my childhood. My parents recorded it off the television, and I swear, I replayed that bootleg VHS so many times that by the time I left home for college, it was well worn out.

Though my middle-class parents never so much as made me lift a broom, as a kid, I very much identified with the trope of the overworked, underappreciated kid. And, with parents like the Gogans (sorry, Mom!), I connected with Pete’s desire to run away and wished and wished and wished that my own invisible friend was as real, and as awesome, as Elliott.

Pete’s Dragon made me giggle. It made me sing along. It was the ultimate escapist fantasy. A younger me appreciated it as wonderfully transporting and delightfully fun. Who didn’t want to tear up the school house and eat dragon-roasted apples in an orchard?!

But at nearly 30-years-old, I’d still put Pete’s Dragon in my top five favorite films. And my nostalgia only plays the smallest of role in that. As an adult, I recognize that there’s a lot more to Pete’s Dragon than a simple little childhood fantasy. In fact, I can pinpoint five reasons that it remains one of my all-time favorite movies:

Comedy Gold

Red Buttons and Mickey Rooney, alone, are hysterical. Together? They kill.

As a kid, I could laugh at their antics, but as an adult, I understand and appreciate their comedy on a whole new level, and it makes me love this movie even more.

There’s one scene in particular, where the pair confronts Elliott in his temporary home, a waterside cave. The two men, drunk, inadvertently scare poor Elliott out of his wits and then proceed to offer him a tip of whiskey as a peace offering.

Go ahead: watch and try not to laugh.

The film is full of wonderful, wink-and-nod moments like that, which are funny for kids and even funnier for adults.

The Music

When most folks talk about the music of Pete’s Dragon, they mention Candle on the Water, which received an Academy Award nomination. But, honestly, how boring can you get?? This milquetoast love song wasn’t actually in my cut-for-television copy of the film. And thank goodness: I can’t imagine me, at age six, sitting through such a sappy, over-wrought scene.

The rest of the music, though, is by turns heartwarming and sincerely funny. And aside from Helen Reddy, no one in this film is a singer. In fact, in most of the musical numbers, the actors are pretty much talking to the melody, and I love it. That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate the over-produced musical numbers that permeate Disney movies, but as a terrible singer, I like that I can sing along without worrying about how bad I sound.

Even Reddy gets in on the talk-singing in this one, a supremely fun bar scene that reminds me an awful lot of the tavern scene from Beauty and the Beast.

Love

While this film is, on the surface, about a dragon and a lost little boy it is, above all, a movie about love and the family we create for ourselves out here in this big, crazy world. That middle-class mini-me didn’t perceive it but after a few years out in the world on my own, I perhaps appreciate the emotional honesty of this film above all.

Elliott and Pete choose each other, companions against a big, cruel world that doesn’t understand them and is in fact actively out to get them. They protect and take care of each other to the best of their ability. Pete, Lampie and Nora also choose each other, creating their own little family out of nothing but commitment, cooperation and caring. I even appreciate the love between Nora and Paul (although I find his “memory loss” story a little convenient).

It’s not, as they say, easy to find magic in pairs. But as Nora and Pete listen to and appreciate each other through the course of this song, we see the first strands of an unbreakable bond forming between them.

Elliott

We all had an imaginary friend, and we all wished that friend were real. How can you not love a story where a misfortunate orphan lives out every kid’s wish??

Elliott is, in short, the coolest dragon ever drawn. First of all, he’s green and pink, which are undeniably the best colors in the world. And he’s shaped like a pear: a chubby little dude with tiny wings, floppy ears and unruly hair. His mannerisms closely resemble those of a dog, with a tail that wags and a tongue that pants. He can’t fly straight to save his life. In short, he is completely adorable.

I want him to be real. And I want him to be my best friend. Think about it: other than Falcor from the Neverending Story (who, incidentally, looks an awful lot like my dog, George), what other movie dragon is as cute and awesome as Elliott? That’s right: none.

Watch Elliott strut his stuff in this clip from the first half of the film, before Pete finds Passamaquady.

Ground-Breaking Animation

You knew I was going to go there, didn’t you? Honestly, I can’t even begin to explain the awesome Disney magic at work in this movie because I don’t understand it myself!! Here’s what I do understand: it was really, really, really hard to get all of that animated Elliott into the “real world” of Passamaquady and its surrounding environs.

Disney’s cadre of animators, directed by Don Bluth, used a film technique called compositing, which allowed them to combine a live foreground and background with an animated middle ground. My DVD, the “High Flying Edition,” includes a featurette called Brazzle Dazzle Effects, which outlines this technique and provides behind-the-scenes footage of the sodium-screen process used to create the live foreground.

I imagine, for the actors, this was just as tough: imagine having to react to and interact with a dragon that you can’t see! But you can’t tell even for a second. Each of the actors keeps their sight-lines crisp, and the whole thing feels absolutely flawless.

Pete

Overall, it’s a wonderful little film that can be enjoyed by kids and adults alike. Give it a watch and then join me over here in Passamaquady, where dragon tracks mark the sidewalk and the mayor’s cigars can’t seem to get a break.

(Picture from MouseClubhouse.com)

About Melissa Sue Sorrells


Melissa is a magazine editor in New Jersey, where she lives with her cavapoo George. She blogs about all things Disney at Mouse on the Mind.

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MarkJuly 26, 2012 - 12:53 am

I love, love, love this movie, too. Watched it many times as a kid and still enjoy it as an adult. I like “Candle on the Water,” but my favorite song is “Brazzle Dazzle Day.”

melissa sueJuly 26, 2012 - 8:46 am

Mark, Brazzle Dazzle Day is pretty much my all-time favorite movie song. (Except maybe for Easy Goin Day from Follow That Bird.) So awesome!!

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