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MMYIF: Pete's Dragon (1977)

My Misspent Youth In Films...

Pete's Dragon
Directed by: Don Chaffey, Don Bluth
Starring: Sean Marshall, Helen Reedy, Jim Dale
Released: November 3, 1977

An orphan boy and his magical dragon come to town with his abusive adoptive parents in pursuit.

What I Thought Then

I remember being particularly impressed by the special effects in this one--the way the animated dragon was able to interact with live action characters and the environment. One of the songs also stood out in my memory. The schmaltziest song in the movie, naturally.

What I Think Now

It's. So. Long. I borrowed a copy from the library that had a misprint on the box. It said the movie was 1 hour and 28 minutes, but really, it's 1 hundred and 28 minutes. Which is entirely too long for a children's film that isn't Mary Poppins. And this movie does not bear that length gracefully. About halfway through it runs out of steam, right around the time a zany snake-oil salesman shows up. He's important to the ending--he wants to kidnap the dragon, and the climax of the film is built around that exchange--but he's cartoonishly villainous and drags everything down for the last half.

There's not a ton going on here narratively, either, to keep the movie going forward. Yes, this theme continues. We don't know how Pete and his sometimes-invisible dragon came to be friends, and the only real insight we have into their relationship is the song linked above. Pete is an orphan who was adopted by abusive parents, but after he and his titular dragon manage to shake them off, he falls in with a lonely lighthouse operator whose fiancé was lost at sea. Will they form a kind of found family? Of course they will. Will the long-missing-presumed-dead fiancé miraculously return with the aid of a certain dragon? You're darn tootin' he will. Predictability is not, however, necessarily a strike against it, especially for a children's film. It's really the sudden emergence of the villain that really grinds things to a halt and I was crawling out of my skin trying to figure out why it was still going.

Lots of things about this movie hold up reasonably well, though. The effects work is great. The animation and character design of the dragon are quite charming; he absolutely feels both dangerous and loveable. There's some slapstick and hijinks that are rather fun in the opening sequence, and the movie milks a lot of humor out of the premise in which a little boy doing fish-out-of-water comedy is being shadowed by a giant invisible child-like monster who means well but is kind of clumsy. I mean, if you can't find decent gags in that setup, then you're just not trying.

The music is hit-or-miss. Candle On The Water and It's Not Easy are quite good, and both benefit from Helen Reddy's on-screen charisma. Little else stands out (aforementioned schmaltz-fest notwithstanding, that is). As far as representation goes, it's a very white movie, but I don't remember anything garishly offensive about it. It's been a few years, though.

Recommendation?

Not really. There's a recent live-action version that's very different from this one, but reasonably entertaining for a children's film. But if you really want to fill in that dragon-shaped hole in your childhood, go with How To Train Your Dragon instead.

Tune in next week to see... um... uh... you know what, I'm not going to try to be cute here, it's Star Wars.

In My Misspent Youth In Films, Kurt is going through his the movies he grew up on. Read the explainer or see more posts.

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