Extended Thoughts on ‘Pete’s Dragon’

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Pete’s Dragon

Directed by Don Chaffey

Written by Malcolm Marmorstein

Being original is hard. I don’t think we appreciate that as much as we should in modern popular entertainment. Being original is hard mainly because everything has been done. With very few exceptions, every type of story has been told countless times. Unless you’re Charlie Kaufman, frankly, you’re not going to be breaking any ground anytime soon. And as consumers of popular entertainment, we need to accept that and realize that it’s OK for filmmakers to cover already trodden ground. What matters is not that you tell an original story (of course, that helps), but that you tell it well. Tell me a story well and I won’t nitpick a well-worn cliché you use. Tell me a story well and I’ll be enthralled, simply because of how you’re telling that story.

Pete’s Dragon doesn’t tell its story well. Pete’s Dragon has such a slight story that I was not shocked to find the original source was a short story. Of course, most Disney animated films are based on very short stories, often fables or fairy tales straight from the Brothers Grimm. Though that’s true, many of those films aren’t extremely long, whereas Pete’s Dragon is 129 minutes in its current version, and was 134 minutes originally. A few Disney films, notably Mary Poppins, are over two hours; even fewer can justify their length. Pete’s Dragon isn’t one of those lucky few.

Movies like Pete’s Dragon make me angry for many reasons, but the chief one is that the filmmakers choose to do nothing special. As I said on the show, these guys were making a movie. A movie! Movies are enormously difficult to make. That any are made is a constant surprise, if you consider the amount of time, energy, and effort that has to go into even the most embarrassing failure. Think of the logistical elements to a movie like Pete’s Dragon. The title character is animated while the world surrounding him is in live-action. Though there may not be any more special effects aside from just Elliott, the title character, that single character is worth a lot of work.

So you’re putting effort into an inciting character; why not put half of that effort into the script about that character? Why leave the audience restless through an oversized, overstuffed, yet empty piece of nostalgic claptrap? Making a movie doesn’t just require effort; depending on the story, it requires imagination. Shouldn’t Disney movies, movies that are meant to make us all get back in tune with our inner child, have the most imagination of all? Shouldn’t they be brimming with creativity? Shouldn’t we be delighted, dazzled, and inspired by the level of invention in this movie?

Of course we should. But then, there’s the fatal flaw of Pete’s Dragon: there is no invention, creativity, or imagination on hand. Aside from saying, “Hey, let’s have there be a dragon and it’s animated and it’s a kid’s best friend because why the hell not?”, there’s no such display here. At best, Pete’s Dragon is a missed opportunity. At worst, it’s a laughable misfire that leaves only a few elements to be impressed by. All I could do as this movie progressed is shake my head in disbelief. How could this movie be so bad, so jaw-droppingly weird and terrible and campy in the same fell swoop?

Mary Poppins and The Music Man are the two movies I kept thinking of when I watched Pete’s Dragon, and it wasn’t just because I had to take comfort in better movies than this one. Mary Poppins and Elliott serve similar functions as characters, both intending to help out the main children in the story so they can become happier in the worlds they inhabit. But the difference between Mary Poppins and Pete’s Dragon is that the latter takes place in a world much like that of The Music Man: turn-of-the-century Americana. The only major differences are that Passamaquoddy is a harbor town and River City is not, and instead of selling the town a boys’ band, the snake-oil salesman in Pete’s Dragon is selling fake medicines and…well, snake oil.

Mary Poppins is a great children’s movie and The Music Man is a rousing and entertaining musical. (Having seen the first hour of Mary Poppins within the last year or so makes me wonder, though, if I’ll like it as much as an adult, what with so many people acting over-the-top.) Trying to emulate these movies is not a bad thing. Walt Disney Pictures had already done this with Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and they probably were hoping to just replicate the success of those films with something relatively similar. But with so few likable characters and even fewer to relate to, Pete’s Dragon is a baffling mess, at turns obnoxious and unintentionally hilarious.

The basic plot is that we’re going to watch a little lonely boy get adopted by a family in a nice enough town filled with nice enough people who get awfully worried over nothing very quickly. Life is so boring in Passamaquoddy that a single walk through town can get Pete in trouble simply by being a bit of a klutz and doing a bad job of managing his invisible dragon. Oh, yes, there is Elliott. Elliott, for the first 90 minutes of the movie, does nothing except for do a half-hearted job of protecting his charge. Then he’s meant to have been working all of this time at making life better for Pete and his soon-to-be-foster family.

See, Pete has a foster family already, the Grogans. How they found him is beyond me. (Yes, I get that he was in an orphanage because his parents did I don’t know what.) They want him to be their slave, so they’ll never have to work on their farm again. We never see that farm, but I can only imagine it looks as well as it would if only one 10-year old boy was working on it. We open as they chase after Pete in a swamp, you know. By the way, the Grogans are awful. They’re just the worst characters in this movie, and boy, did I have my choice with the characters here. But the Grogans are the worst, because they represent nothing at all. They’re one of two sets of villains here, and the actual threat they try to be is weak, to begin with. They apparently have some bill of sale proving that Pete is his—as you know, orphanages frequently call them bills of sale. But whatever, they own him. So they want him back, but the good-hearted woman who’s taken a shine to Pete has no interest in giving him up. But the Grogans want him. But she doesn’t…and on and on.

I don’t know, by the way, that it’d matter who played the Grogans. The only two recognizable actors are Shelley Winters and Jeff Conaway, and while Winters was a fine actress in much more highbrow fare, she’s not that good here. Granted, the material is very weak, not to mention the fact that the Grogans are in about 30 minutes of the movie, if I’m being generous. But Winters is not elevating the movie above the material. If anyone does that, or even attempts to, it’s Mickey Rooney, Jim Dale, and Red Buttons. The latter two play the main antagonists, Doc Terminus and his sidekick, Hoagy. Imagine Harold Hill and his sidekick, Buddy Hackett—OK, fine, I don’t know his character’s name, but neither do you—but as nefarious as Marion the librarian assumes they are. Rooney plays Lampy, the town lighthouse-keeper, and the father of Nora, the woman who takes a liking to Pete.

Rooney and Buttons are, of course, old pros and Dale was well on his way to becoming one of stage and screen. (And he’s best known these days for doing the Harry Potter audiobooks in the United States.) But what it is about them over Winters (no spring chicken) is something I can’t comprehend. Rooney has the toughest job, I think, because his character is the most outrageous and the one with the most potential for flamboyance. Lampy is also apparently the town drunk, so when he happens to see Elliott up close – remember, Elliott is frequently invisible, because hiding the animated character in an otherwise live-action movie makes sense, right? – it won’t shock you to know he’s seen as a nut who’s over the hill and incredibly inebriated. But Rooney, the oldest of the old pros here and pretty much in life now, does his damnedest to be both crazy and charming. Make no mistake, he’s playing things over-the-top here, but he’s not grating. Credit where it’s due.

And there is little to give, but another scene I legitimately enjoyed is when Nora, played by singer Helen Reddy, sings “Candle On The Water,” the film’s Oscar-nominated centerpiece song. Nora pines for her long-lost fiancé, Paul, who’s been lost at sea for a year. Lampy chides her for holding out such hope, which leads her to go to the top of the lighthouse and sing the song. (Quick sidebar: Lampy is the one who saw a dragon. Now, while we know he’s telling the truth, Nora has every reason to assume her dad is seeing things because of his rampant alcoholism, and HE’S telling HER to be realistic in the scene before the song. I don’t know that the movie is aware of this ridiculous disconnect, but Nora sure is.) Partly because the scene is directed as simply as possible, and because the music is plaintive and sweet, this scene works. It’s fine the way it is. Watch it on YouTube. You’ll get the same out of it as you would in a two-hour movie.

And that’s the problem. With as many ideas floating around its pretty little head, you’d think that Pete’s Dragon could get by with its outsized plot and goofy animated title character. But it can’t. At no point do we get a consistent tone, at no point do we get consistently entertaining characters or sequences, and at no point are we invested in the plot. So what else is there to say? Elliott has survived this movie to become one of the major floats in the Main Street Electrical Parade at the Disney theme parks, and “Candle On The Water” is a justifiably beloved song. But most people under the age of 15 don’t know about Pete’s Dragon. Frankly, that’s as it should be. Sometimes, mass audiences see a stinker a mile away. They were right with this one.

– Josh Spiegel

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