"Pete's Dragon" High Flying Edition DVD: The Real Heat's in the Extras
It’s not hard to deduce some things from the way a home video release is packaged. Skimpy or non-existent extras usually indicate that a movie is being released on the cheap, maximizing profits by minimizing costs with the expectation that the movie won’t be a top-seller. Interactive games are a dead-giveaway that the primary audience is expected to be kids. What one can deduce from the release of the new Pete’s Dragon “High Flying Edition” DVD is that Disney is aware there isn’t a massive audience for the movie beyond the kids who grew up with it at the time of its release, based on the relatively low-key release and a set of extras that will be of far more interest to adults than to most kids. As a movie, Pete’s Dragon is a moderately charming movie, but much like Disney’s other output in the 1970’s, it doesn’t really have much weight or staying power, either.
To its credit, Pete’s Dragon doesn’t waste much time in setup, throwing the audience in head-first and filling in details as it goes. Pete (Sean Marshall) is a young boy adopted for slave labor by the Gogan clan, a nasty hillbilly family led by a heavily made-up Shelley Winters. Luckily, Pete has an ace in the hole: an invisible friend he calls Elliot who manages to drive off the Gogans. Once the Gogans are gone, Elliot is finally revealed as a big green animated dragon, leading to some impressive effects shots as Pete interacts with Elliot in surprisingly convincing ways. When Pete makes his way to the quiet seaside town of Passamaquoddy, he is taken in the kindly lighthouse keeper Nora (Helen Reddy), and her tipsy father Lampie (Mickey Rooney), who sees Elliot accidentally but can’t convince any of the townspeople that there’s a real dragon in town. Before long, Pete and Elliot are in hot water in Passamaquoddy, thanks to Elliot’s own mishaps and accidents which are inevitably blamed on Pete, the arrival of snake-oil salesmen Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale) and his toady Hoagy (Red Buttons) who see dollar signs in dragon parts, and the re-appearance of the Gogans. There’s a lot of fussing and a few more songs before the good are rewarded, the bad are firmly punished (but not too violently), and everyone lives happily ever after but for one little bittersweet moment at the end.
The biggest problem with Pete’s Dragon is that it feels a bit too much like it’s been cobbled together from bits and pieces of other movies, and the different parts don’t fit too well. There are a few too many plots running throughout the movie, and none of them contain many surprises or manage to build off each other very well. Elliot’s invisible shenanigans that get Pete in trouble feel far too familiar, as do most of the characters in the movie. As charming and entertaining as Reddy is, she’s a pretty stock character, and Rooney and Buttons mostly do same sort of schtick that had been done better in other movies. It’s also a bit of a problem that Pete’s Dragon can’t manage to make much of either of its antagonists other than one mildly worrisome scene near the end of the movie. One wonders if Dr. Terminus and Hoagy were added because the movie can’t get the Gogan’s back on screen any faster or turn them into anything like a credible threat. Worst of all, Pete himself ends up getting upstaged by nearly everyone else in the movie, although this is understandable considering what Sean Marshall was up against. He had to film most of his scenes as conversations with absolutely nothing, and in the remainder, one would have to have the screen charisma of Haley Joel Osment or the young Lindsay Lohan to hold one’s own with the likes of Mickey Rooney, Helen Reddy, Jim Dale, and Red Buttons. It’s not necessarily a slight to his talents to say that Marshall just doesn’t have the presence to stand out against combined star wattage of the rest of the cast.
Pete’s Dragon also isn’t much of a musical. Helen Reddy gets to shine for one song, “Candle on the Water,” which earned the movie an Oscar nomination for Best Original Song even though the number stops the movie completely dead for its duration. “There’s Room for Everyone” is the movie’s one big, moderately impressive song-and-dance number, with a chorus of talented kids led by Reddy kicking up a lot of dust in the center of Passamaquoddy. The rest of the music is fairly forgettable, with the attempted centerpiece “Brazzle Dazzle Day” unable to hold a candle to other comparable Disney musical numbers like “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” or “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.”
If there is a reason to watch Pete’s Dragon, it is to marvel at the skill of Don Bluth and the animators who bring Elliot to charming and delightful life, and then integrate him so smoothly with the rest of the cast. On one level, we are fully aware that Elliot is not really on screen interacting with the human cast, as with most live-action/animated hybrids. However, like the best live-action/animated hybrid movies, it is quite surprising how quickly we come to believe in Elliot, and simply accept that he is as much a part of the movie as the ocean or the lighthouse. Pete’s Dragon was Disney’s last experiment with integrating live-action and hand-drawn animated characters, and the technique as a whole had its swan song a few years later with Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Today, the live-action/animation hybrid movies are all done through CGI, as in The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, the live-action Scooby-Doo or Garfield movies, or Enchanted. However, while the results may be more “realistic,” there just seems to be much more charm in watching the patently impossible like Gene Kelly dancing with Jerry the mouse, Dick Van Dyke hoofing it with a batch of penguin waiters, and Pete and Elliot sharing a moment between close friends. Perhaps making hand-drawn animated characters share the screen with human actors demands a certain sense of whimsy for audiences to accept them, but Pete’s Dragon has a certain lightheartedness that’s absent in most CGI hybrids, with the possible exception of the charming Enchanted.
Given its flaws, it’s not surprising that Pete’s Dragon has never had the same kind of staying power as something like Mary Poppins, and it seems clear that the new “High-Flying Edition” DVD is targeted more at adults nostalgic for the movie and ready to share it with the more patient of their kids. It is just a single-disc DVD rather than a splashy, 2-disc deluxe DVD or Blu-ray disc, but Disney seems to have taken some care in restoring the movie anyway. The anamorphic widescreen image (slightly pillarboxed for the movie’s aspect ratio) is sharp and mostly grain-free except where the grain seems intentional (specifically, with Elliot). The Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack doesn’t really get much of a workout, but it’s crisp and clean and quite satisfactory. The surprise on this DVD is in the quantity and quality of the special features, starting with the superb documentary “Brazzle Dazzle Effects” that’s narrated by the adult Sean Marshall. The 25-minute documentary stretches well beyond Pete’s Dragon, presenting a surprisingly thorough history of live-action/animation hybrids in general, starting with the Fleischer Bros. “Out of the Inkwell” shorts and Disney’s “Alice” comedies, detailing the innovative “sodium vapor process” pioneered by Ub Iwerks (better known as the animator and arguably the creator of Mickey Mouse) and used to great effect in Pete’s Dragon, and running all the way up to today’s CGI/live-action hybrids like Enchanted. The extra historical context is invaluable in understanding the technical achievements of Pete’s Dragon, and may even be worth the price of admission by itself for animation historians and the more serious fans of the medium.
The DVD also includes several deleted or altered elements: storyboard sequence where Dr. Terminus and Hoagy search for Elliot, a deleted song concept, and early demo recordings of several songs (one of which was removed from the movie entirely) that are quite different than what ended up on screen. The real sign that this DVD is aimed at nostalgic adults rather than kids is that the “pop” versions of 4 of the songs are not cover versions by the latest Disney teen idols, but rather recordings taken from a record released along with the movie. However, there is the usual DVD game for the kids who go to the bonus features. There is also an art gallery of production artwork and the original trailers for the movie, along with excerpts from “Disney Family Album” with Ken Anderson and “The Plausible Impossible,” which digs into the legends of dragons. Finally, the Donald Duck short “Lighthouse Keeping” is an entertaining bonus feature that’s icing on the cake.
Pete’s Dragon is pretty typical of Disney’s 1970’s blander comedic faire. If the movie has aged well, it’s only because was middle-range at best when it was released and hasn’t gotten any better or worse with time. I’m sure the now-adult fans of the movie at whom this disc is probably aimed at will enjoy it immensely, but the special features on this DVD may be of more enduring value than the movie itself.