Friday, November 11, 2011

Pete's Dragon

 I don't do musicals.....well I don't do them very often, lets put it that way. They are a bit like horrors in being a genre I don't get into as such. But I will from time to time partake. So with a case of insomnia last night I sat down at 2.30a.m this morning and watched a film I had wanted to re-visit since I had first seen as a kid. Released in 1977 I don't actually think I saw it that year though. It was definitely a matinee but I think it was about 1980-81 when Isaw it with my sister and two cousins in Hastings.

 Well since whenever it was I have not seen Pete's Dragon since, and yet I have always wanted to. The funny thing is with this film is that I knew absolutely nothing about it. Before this morning I didn't even know the year it was made let alone name any of the cast! Also because it is a film my mother likes I always had the impression it was a film from the 1950's or 1960's. As I watched it I thought it looked like a 1950's film and was flabbergasted to find out it was actually a late 1970's release. I'm not sure if this is a good thing or not because Pete's Dragon looks out of era to me.

 Pete's Dragon has dated to be sure but I just couldn't get over how it looked as if it was from the 1950's. In fact the thing that really struck me was that the special effects etc were those Alfred Hitchcock used in 1963 for The Birds. That is a 14 year difference and yet Pete's Dragon was using techniques from the early 1960's. It is interesting because whereas Hitchcock used blue screen technology to negate   the blue haziness from overlayed images, Pete's Dragon didn't. It was this blue hue/shadowing that made me think the film was older than it was. But even the hand painted landscapes etc are lifted straight from The Birds. But whilst I didn't mind it I was left wondering why, and how, such obviously dated techniques were still in use in 1977. Really, hadn't special effects moved forward that much that they were still mired in the early 1960's?

 So visually Pete's Dragon has dated more than it should have. If it had been made ten years earlier then it wouldn't be so noticeable, but this was 1977 just as George Lucas was about to unleash the special effects heavy Star Wars onto the world...and just compare the two. Seriously Pete's Dragon looks like a 1950's-1960's film and was a virtual dinosaur as soon as it was made. But that doesn't mean the film is a dud. For me the only criticism, if I could call it that as I felt it more an observation than a criticism, is the visuals. But it doesn't just apply to the animated dragon Elliot. It is the painted landscapes and the overlaying of images that is most noticeable. The use of live-action animation was still in its relative infancy so its datedness is understandable.

 The film is based on an un-published short story that the Disney studio acquired and intended to make into a TV program in the 1950's.  Unfortunately I can't find out why it took almost two decades before it was given the full screen treatment. On release the film was only a moderate success and it was seen as Disney trying to re-create the success of 1964's hit Mary Poppins. Now I don't think this a bad thing. But as much as I personally like Pete's Dragon it doesn't even come close to Mary Poppins. If anything it shows that by 1977 this type of film had had its day. That is probably why Pete's Dragon feels so dated because even in 1977 it was!

 Of course musicals haven't gone away as the three recent High School Musical films have shown. But as a genre it is now a thing of the distant past and Pete's Dragon's is on the cusp of that demise. Westerns of course suffered a similar fate. Like musicals film makers when they make a western cannot even come close to those of the past. But where does that leave Pete's Dragon? Well sure it isn't Mary Poppins but it isn't all that bad either. It has all the usual Disney heart, charm and humour. In all honesty I found it a film that was hard not to like. I think it a film that you develop a soft spot for even whilst recognising it as a lesser Disney effort.

 Soft spot and visuals asides I find it difficult to define why Pete's Dragon isn't better thought of. I mean I haven't heard anyone say it was rubbish, but it also doesn't' light anyone up enthusiastically. One thing though struck me was even as I was putting it into the DVD player. And that was my mind went  'I don't know any of the songs from this '. And that possibly sums it up. Because whilst the songs and singing are very accomplished none of them are memorable. I mean none have entered our collective memories or popular culture in anyway. None of them quite have the zing and magic of previous Disney films of this sort.

 But all the same the acting is fine and the choreography in particular just superb. I just wonder if this as being aimed a children is maybe too long. I mean it is 121 mins long, and even though the kids I see watch it love it, they rarely can sit still for its entire run time. Certainly as an adult I didn't mind and felt satisfied, but then as a strictly kids film it is 30 minutes too long. We see this in animated features of today which average around the 90 minute mark. Funnily enough even though not one of Disney's finest efforts Pete's Dragon was the first Disney feature to be released on VHS in 1982!

 Again when quality is mentioned was Pete's Dragon that bad when you consider it was nominated for two music Oscars? Even the song ' Candle on the Water' sung by Helen Reddy made it to #27 on US singles charts. Sure it hasn't stayed in popular culture but it shows the film did reach out and touch people as good Disney films did and do. Now to a last observation and fact. It is hard to credit that Mickey Rooney is now 91 and still starring in films! Here in Pete's Dragon he was already 57!! The last thing is that the dragon Elliot was made to appear more oriental as Asian dragons are associated with good. Interestingly Elliot was the first animated Disney creation not to involve the 'Nine Old Men ', the original Disney animators. In fact one of Elliot's animators went on to the much vaunted and over hyped Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

 So OK Pete's Dragon is not one of Disney's best. But even as a lesser Disney film is has plenty to offer. Just on charm and heart alone it succeeds, as it has plenty galore, as it does laughs. It transcends just being a kids flick as it is just as accessible to adults. But it has dated visually more than it should have because of its outdated  1960's effects. Unfortunately it means the film looks far older than what it actually is. But at the same time one of its failings isn't as easy to criticise, because by 1977 the musical was and had been in terminal decline, and Pete's Dragon got caught up in the change of taste. This means that it hasn't stood the test of time well and hasn't been re-evaluated.

 Not Mary Poppins but even still a worthy heart warming watch that both the kids and adults can enjoy. IMDB has this with a 6/10 which is probably fair quality wise. But for me it whilst flawed it still has enough classic Disney ingredients that makes Pete's Dragon hard to ignore, and heaven forbid, develop a soft spot for!

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  1. I, like you, don't do musicals. I do have a little time for the horror genre but there are few horror films I like. Interestingly, one of my favourite films of all time is a horror film (refer to the header on my blog).

    I think I may have seen the first half or so of PETE'S DRAGON back when I was still in the single digits. I don't remember much about it at all apart from wanting to turn it off and pop a Pixar film into the VHS player.

  2. I grew up when this type of film was still very much in vogue from Disney. So I do like it because I can identify with it. But it does not compare to some of the really good Pixar animated features though. But I think Mary Poppins is still a great example of this genre.