Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Pete’s Dragon (1977)

          The last and least attempt by Walt Disney Productions to recapture the magic of Mary Poppins (1964), this bloated bore features many of the previous film’s signature elements. Like Mary Poppins, the picture combines animation with live action, features exuberant musical numbers, and showcases the bonds that form between children and their guardians. Unlike the earlier film, however, Pete’s Dragon is annoying, cutesy, dull, pandering, and unfocused. The story makes very little sense, the main special-effects gimmick is a letdown, the music is terrible, and the less said about the wall-to-wall horrible acting, the better.
          In nearly every way imaginable, this is one of the worst movies Disney released in the ’70s, even though it was among of the studio’s most expensive productions of the era. Had giant sets and legions of dancing extras been enough to compensate for an idiotic storyline, Pete’s Dragon would have been a winner. Alas, story matters, and this narrative is dumb, dumb, dumb. When the movie begins, inexplicably optimistic orphan Pete (Sean Marshall) is being chased by a group of evil rednecks, led by Lena Gogan (Shelley Winters), who “purchased” him into foster care so her family could collect government handouts. Pete evades capture with the help of his traveling companion, a dragon named Elliot (voiced by Charlie Callas). Elliot has the ability to turn invisible, so we often see only the objects he smashes into, but when he becomes visible, he’s a two-dimensional cartoon.
          One can assume (and understand) the thinking behind this aesthetic choice; in Mary Poppins and other movies, Disney put live-action characters into animated backgrounds, so why not try the reverse? In practice, however, the presentation is illogical. Since Elliot is “real,” and not a figment of Pete’s imagination, why doesn’t he have the same level of substance as everything else in the movie? And why does he communicate in grunts and mumbles that only Pete can understand? And why does he accept getting shoved into a dark cave the minute Pete finds a surrogate family in the persons of a drunken lighthouse keeper (Mickey Rooney) and his spirited daughter (Helen Reddy)? Furthermore, why does the movie introduce a con man (Jim Dale) and his assistant (Red Buttons), who want to use Elliot’s body parts for magical potions, when the story already has a villain in the underused Winters character? And why, oh why, are the songs so grating and repetitive, like the cringe-inducing “Boo Bop Bopbop Bop (I Love You, Too)”?
          Good luck solving any of these mysteries, or figuring out why this interminable cinematic leviathan received two Oscar nominations (for the music!), or discerning how Pete’s Dragon earned a respectable $36 million at the box office during 1977 before grossing an additional $4 million when it was re-released (in a shorter version) in 1984. Turning Pete’s Dragon into an Oscar-nominated financial success? Now, that’s Disney magic.

Pete’s Dragon: LAME

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