Pete's Dragon (US - BD)
Gabe revisits Disney's messiest attempts to recapture the Mary Poppins magic...
After fleeing his abusive, adoptive, hillbilly family, Pete (Sean Marshall) and his invisible dragon friend/guardian, Elliott, wander into the seaside village of Passamaquoddy. Unaware that Elliott is real because he has promised Pete to remain invisible, the Passamaquoddy citizens blame the boy for a series of mishaps, including a recent dive in area fish, and demand he leaves town. Rightfully dejected, Pete and Elliott seek solace in a cave near the lighthouse where Pete is discovered by the lighthouse keeper’s daughter, Nora (Helen Reddy), who accepts him into her home with her drunken father Lampie (Mickey Rooney). Meanwhile, a snake oil salesman named Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale) and his hapless assistant, Hoagy (Red Buttons), come into town, hoping to scheme the gullible people of Passamaquoddy out of their hard-earned cash.
As a kid, I had a reoccurring dream where I was sold to hobos and it wasn’t until recently that I realized this dream was motivated by an early, early childhood viewing of Don Chaffey’s Pete’s Dragon (technically, Pete’s cost is the cost of an adoption fee, but I didn’t understand that at the time). Considering the film’s less than stellar reputation, I’ve mostly avoided revisiting it until now, as it is released for the first time on Blu-ray to celebrate its 35th anniversary. Now, I’m not at all surprised this negative verging on cruel motion picture freaked out my younger self. Pete’s Dragon attempts to recreate the magic of Disney’s first blockbuster live-action/animation mix, Mary Poppins, but it’s so immediately depressing and mean-spirited that I’m not sure it’s possible for the filmmakers to have missed the boat much more without including graphic violence. For something like 30 minutes, Chaffey hammers home the fact that Pete’s life is terrible and that almost everyone in town hates him. The whimsy of an invisible dragon friend is lost as Eliot does nothing but prank the people around Pete, which only makes them hate him more. Even worse is the film’s lack of momentum. The storyline is secondary at best, mostly devoted to getting the film from song to song, with jokes about Elliott causing invisible mischief, people falling face first into mud/dirt/cement, and Mickey Rooney being drunk to fill the rest of the epic runtime. There’s energy and scale to the musical numbers, but Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kasha’s songs are pale imitations of the Sherman Brothers’ Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks work. I will, however, admit I remembered some of the lyrics, even when separated from the film for decades.
Like most of the studio’s failures (critical and/or financial), Pete’s Dragon’s production history is more interesting to discuss than its merits as a film. It was made under a shadow of being the first Disney film to not feature the animation expertise of the studio’s much-coveted original team – the ‘Nine Old Men.’ Considering how little animation is involved, I don’t think this was much of a risk on the part of the filmmakers, who spend more time working on the special effects surrounding the invisibility of the title dragon than his animated appearance. For what little it’s worth, Elliott is very well executed, at least as a standalone animated element, including a few particularly charming moments, like the bit where he plays tic-tac-toe on his own belly. The animation certainly features Don Bluth’s touch, which brings me to another interesting factoid that isn’t often discussed (mostly because the film itself isn’t often discussed) – Pete’s Dragon is listed as a co-production of Walt Disney Productions and Don Bluth Entertainment. This is a bit confusing, as most information claims that Don Bluth Entertainment didn’t actually exist until 1979, when it was dubbed Don Bluth Productions (later the Bluth Group and eventually Sullivan Bluth Studios, because you apparently cannot change a studio’s name enough times), but interesting considering Bluth’s very public divorce from Disney, which ended with him taking several of the studio’s best animators with him. I’m sure there’s a great story in here somewhere and wish I could find more information.
Concerning the film’s runtime: During its original ‘roadshow’ theatrical release, Pete’s Dragon was reportedly 134 minutes long. Then it was edited down to 121 minutes for its wider release. It was original released on home video at the same 121 minutes, but was then cut down again to 104 minutes for its 1984 re-release. When it was re-issued again the next year, it was restored to 128 minutes. This 128-minute runtime was maintained on DVD releases. The box art of this 35th anniversary Blu-ray list an extremely truncated runtime of 88 minutes. However, I can assure all the fans out there that this release does feature the preferred 128-minute version and that the box art number is a typo. What’s funny is that I bet the film works better with more musical numbers cut so this nonexistent 88-minute cut might be the preferred version of the film.
Pete’s Dragon may suffer from a rather tepid fanbase, but Disney isn’t letting a lack of demand get in the way of a truly outstanding 1080p, 1.66:1 Blu-ray transfer. This looks like a brand new movie in the best possible way, rivaling some of the studio’s less impressive catalogue titles, like The Rocketeer and Adventures in Babysitting. There are signs of DNR enhancement here, specifically in some of the facial close-ups, but fear not, there’s still enough natural grain and minor artefacts to signify the film’s 35mm roots. The image is clear with realistic details, sharp textures, and well-separated intricacies (especially clothing patterns). The overall detail increase doesn’t do the special effects any favours, especially where Elliott the dragon is concerned, since the animation is sizably grainier than the 35mm elements (which makes sense, based on the special effects processes at the time). The animation features consistent colours, but never matches the wonderfully rich qualities of the live-action hues. The palette tends to skew slightly more primary than lifelike to create the illusion of an animated feature, leading to incredibly lush greens, smooth blues, and standout, noiseless reds. Despite a lack of high contrast compositions, there’s no trouble discerning highlight details in the darker sequences. Black levels are pure without absorbing much of the colour surrounding them or bleeding out into blobs, but there are some edge enhancement effects on the harshest black edges.
There’s not a lot about Pete’s Dragon that marks it as special, but it was the first Disney film to feature Dolby Stereo sound, which is a four-channel system that lends itself well to a 5.1 remix. This DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 re-master takes its lead from the Dolby Stereo mix and mostly separates the audio between the four front channels. Dialogue is almost exclusively centered, even when sung, along with the bulk of the film’s minor effects work and the music’s key instrumentations. The stereo channels come to life with the musical numbers, where key elements are separated, and the overall volume levels are assisted by the track’s uncompressed nature. Some of the effects work (seagulls, waves crashing, storm wind) make their way into the stereo channels, but very little aside from some light musical echoes make their way into the surrounds. There are some signs of content damage throughout the mix, including minor buzzing effects and a few pops, but the clearest problems are found in the inconsistent dialogue tracks. There are a number of moments where words become muffled and lose a lot of their high-end sound. Sometimes this problem occurs between clearer bits, which makes it sound all the more weird. These problems are the exception rather than the rule, but it’s still slightly less than we tend to expect from Disney.
The extras, all of which were available on the previous DVD release, begin with Brazzle Dazzle Effects: Behind Disney’s Magic (25:20, SD), a look at Disney’s history with special effects, hosted by star Sean Marshall and featuring archive footage of FX work throughout the years. The disc also features a deleted storyboard sequence (2:30, SD), an original song concept demo (2:40, SD), and trailers.
Pete’s Dragon is a frustratingly unbalanced, overlong, and relentlessly bitter movie. By the second song about killing something, I was flabbergasted that anyone ever considered it children’s entertainment. Perhaps if everything wasn’t so over-simplified and characterless, it could’ve been more of an adult cult classic, but it seems that the film’s mediocre reputation is well-earned. Still, I’m sure every movie has its fans and those people with fonder memories of Pete’s Dragon will be happy to know that Disney hasn’t dropped the ball on this Blu-ray transfer, which sits among the best in the studio’s non-event, catalogue releases.
* Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
All ages admitted
Release Date: 16th October 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Dolby Digital 5.1 French
Subtitles: English SDH, French
Extras: Brazzle Dazzle Effects: Behind Disney's Movie Magic, Delted Storyboard Sequence, Original Song Concept Demo, Trailers, DVD Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Don Chaffey
Cast: Helen Reddy, Jim Dale, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Shelley Winters
Genre: Adventure, Animation, Comedy and Drama
Length: 128 minutes
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