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Pete's Dragon: 35th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray + DVD Review

Pete's Dragon (1977) movie poster Pete's Dragon

Theatrical Release: November 3, 1977 / Running Time: 129 Minutes / Rating: G

Director: Don Chaffey / Writers: Malcolm Marmorstein (screenplay); Seton I. Miller, S.S. Field (story)

Cast: Helen Reddy (Nora), Jim Dale (Dr. Terminus), Mickey Rooney (Lampie), Red Buttons (Hoagy), Shelley Winters (Lena Gogan), Sean Marshall (Pete), Jane Kean (Miss Taylor), Jim Backus (The Mayor), Charles Tyner (Merle Gogan), Gary Morgan (Grover Gogan), Jeff Conaway (Willie Gogan), Cal Bartlett (Paul), Charles Callas (voice of Elliott), Walter Barnes (Captain)

Songs: "The Happiest Home in These Hills", "Bop Bop Bopbop Bop (I Love You, Too)", "I Saw a Dragon", "It's Not Easy", "Passamashloddy", "Candle on the Water", "There's Room for Everyone", "Every Little Piece", "Brazzle Dazzle Day", "Bill of Sale"

Buy Pete's Dragon from Amazon.com: Blu-ray + DVD • High-Flying Edition DVD • Gold Collection DVD • Instant Video

A number of Walt Disney's early feature films from the 1940s combined live-action and animation, including his two Latin American travelogues and Song of the South. Since that decade,
the two mediums have rarely been mixed and largely only on big event movies. Becoming Disney's most prestigious film, Mary Poppins (1964) blended the worlds in an indelible central sequence. More recent applications have also been landmark features, from the 1988 Touchstone Pictures blockbuster Who Framed Roger Rabbit to the tradition-celebrating Enchanted and Pixar's exalted WALL•E.

In between these eras of cinema that many would define as "old" and "new", the Disney of the 1970s that Walt left behind made two ambitious period musicals on the scale of Mary Poppins: Bedknobs and Broomsticks and Pete's Dragon. Neither enjoyed as much success as Mary and neither is as well-known today. But to many Disney fans, they are among the brightest highlights of an era in which the company asked and answered "what would Walt do?" a little too frequently.

Whereas Mary and Bedknobs adapted popular children's novels, Pete's Dragon had its foundation in an unpublished short story by Golden Age Hollywood screenwriter Seton I. Miller (whose 1930s credits included The Adventures of Robin Hood and Scarface) and an author named S.S. Field (who wrote the part cookbook, part history lesson The American Drink Book in 1953). Disney had acquired the story's rights in the 1950s, intending to adapt it for Walt's weekly anthology television series.

Instead, the story sat on the shelf until Malcolm Marmorstein, a veteran of the TV shows "Dark Shadows" and "Peyton Place" who had recently transitioned to film with a couple of long-forgotten Elliott Gould comedies, took a stab at it. Taking the director's chair was British filmmaker Don Chaffey, who had helmed two smaller films for Disney in the early 1960s (Greyfriars Bobby, The Three Lives of Thomasina) in between larger fantasy adventures (Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years B.C.) for others.

Pete (Sean Marshall) and his best friend Elliott the dragon share some apples.

Pete's Dragon is set in the New England harbor town of Passamaquoddy around the turn of the 20th century. Orphan Pete (Sean Marshall) is an unhappy recent addition to the Gogans, a family of four hillbillies who have spent their last $50 (plus 50 cents legal fees) to adopt him. They do not offer a happy or healthy home, seeing the boy as the one who will do the work they don't want to. At least Pete has a friend in the occasionally visible Elliott (voiced by Charles Callas), a 12-foot, pink-haired, fire-breathing, tiny-winged gentle green dragon. Elliott is protective and helps Pete escape from the abusive Gogans.

The two friends arrive in Passamaquoddy, where the playful Elliott proceeds to inflict unintended damage. Fortunately, the only resident who saw Elliott in his visible form is Lampie (Mickey Rooney), an old drunk no one pays much mind. Lampie's kind daughter Nora (pop songstress Helen Reddy) pays Pete mind and allows him to stay with her and Lampie in the lighthouse they dutifully run. Still mourning the mysterious sea disappearance of her beau one year ago, the maternal Nora cleans up Pete, enrolls him in school, and even entertains his unbelievable dragon talk.

Life in Passamaquoddy gets more interesting with the return of Doc Terminus (Jim Dale) and his "intern" Hoagy (Red Buttons). Riding into town in a wayward wagon, the two traveling con men and their miracle tonics face large amounts of skepticism from the previously-duped populace. Despite the fact that his operation is a sham, the Doc grows intrigued by reports of a dragon. Seeing the fabled medicinal value and, more importantly, the immense monetary potential, Terminus plots to capture and dismember the beast. On his side is a working class disgruntled by a fish shortage attributed to Elliott. Also resurfacing are Ma Gogan (Shelley Winters) and her ever-filthy husband (Charles Tyner) and two sons (Gary Morgan and Jeff Conaway), convinced they've got a claim that entitles them to their child laborer.

Nora (Helen Reddy) sings the Oscar-nominated "Candle on the Water" from up in her lighthouse. Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale) demonstrates the immediate effects of his miracle cures with his intern Hoagy (Red Buttons) posing as an old deaf woman.

With an unspectacular average IMDb voter rating of just 6.1, Pete's Dragon does not have a sterling reputation with the general public.
It remains unfamiliar to many of those who weren't old enough to catch it in its 1984 theatrical reissue. But it's a very sweet and likable film that I hold in high regard.

The film's $11 million budget made it the costliest Disney production to date. Boasting a lavish port town complete with a body of water built on the studio's set, authentic period costuming, and impressive visual effects via the sodium vapor process, that investment is evident throughout. Or rather, it would be evident if the universe hadn't been so meticulously and believably crafted. With all the sights satisfying the eyes, the mind moves to more important matters, namely story and characters.

The film succeeds on these fundamental levels, with Pete and Elliott instantly winning our sympathy and maintaining it throughout. Fans of musicals may be willing to overlook slight plots and flimsy structure, but they don't have to endure that here. Nor are they asked to lower their song standards. The ten original numbers were composed by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, a team that had recently won Oscars for their collaborations on Irwin Allen disaster flicks The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. Having to come up with far more and more focal tunes here, the duo succeeds. A number of them do not advance the film or feel essential. The lyrics can be nonsensical or trite. And yet the songs are sincere and tremendously appealing, adding to the vast amount of charm Pete's Dragon carries. Kasha and Hirschhorn were nominated for Academy Awards for the reprised "Candle on the Water" and, along with Irwin Kostal, original song score.

There is no denying that Dragon aspires to spectacle, albeit of a much different kind than fellow 1977 releases Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Comfortably meshing a decidedly two-dimensional dragon with a live-action universe is no small achievement, but the movie largely pulls it off. The potential for disjointedness soars, but the talented effects team squashes it with their spirited work. (Among them, Peter Ellenshaw's son Harrison adds to his father's matte painting legacy.)

Much credit needs to go to the animators, who were directed by Don Bluth. This was one of Bluth's last projects at Disney, which he would leave to go it his own and produce/direct two of the biggest non-Disney cartoon hits of the 1980s in An American Tail and The Land Before Time. Among those cutting their teeth here and helping to give Elliott fluid life and a strong personality were up-and-coming character animators Ron Clements, Glen Keane, and Randy Cartwright, who would all make significant contributions to works like The Little Mermaid and Aladdin.

Pa (Charles Tyner) and Ma Gogan (Shelley Winters) look to reclaim their adopted son with their bill of sale. A dragon! A dragon! Lampie (Mickey Rooney) swears he saw a dragon!

The production could easily have devoted all their efforts to Elliott, but they didn't and we know this because the picture doesn't fall flat or even suffer for the substantial stretches in which the goofy garbler is absent. From a 2012 perspective, the star power is pretty minimal, in contrast to what it was on release. Fortunately, the cast brings energy and enthusiasm that strike even as their names and faces might not.

Four actors deserve special notice. In the biggest role, 11-year-old Sean Marshall isn't asked to do much more than your run-of-the-mill good kid act, but he brings an emotional honesty of incalculable strength. Best known for her women's lib anthem "I Am Woman", Helen Reddy had received a Most Promising Female Newcomer Golden Globe nomination for her turn in Airport 1975. Saturn-nominated here, she doesn't have the most memorable screen presence, but both acts and sings well enough. (She mostly gave up on acting after this.) Handed flashier roles, the legendary Mickey Rooney and stage-accomplished Brit Jim Dale excel. Rooney plays the type of lovable drunk we'd never see today. Dale (whose ABC series "Pushing Daisies" paid tribute to the film in a December 2008 episode) is more suave and cunning than your all-purpose family film villain.

Pete's Dragon didn't win any awards, set the box office on fire, or make people forget about Mary Poppins, but it earned some good reviews and turned a decent profit. The nature and ambition of the project have kept it more prominent than almost all of Disney's 1970s output. It was among the Ron Miller decade's few works to get a special title and treatment on DVD, which it did in early 2001 as the last release in the studio's Gold Classic Collection line. Eight years, 78 million new DVD households, and 14.4 million new Region 1 births later, the film was revisited in a "High-Flying Edition DVD." That 2009 DVD has become the basis for next week's 35th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray + DVD combo. Unless I'm mistaken, this is by far Disney's oldest primarily live-action movie to debut on Blu-ray, with Babes in Toyland set to take that title in December and other vintage comedies to follow next year.

Though the packaging of this new release assigns Pete's Dragon a runtime of just 88 minutes, you needn't fear that the movie has been censored or heavily abridged. It continues to run just under 2 hours and 9 minutes, which is apparently longer than it ran in its general theatrical releases and 1980 home video debut, but just a bit shy of its 134-minute roadshow theatrical cut.

Pete's Dragon: 35th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray + DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com Blu-ray & DVD Details

1.66:1 Widescreen (DVD Anamorphic)
Blu-ray: 5.1 DTS-HD MA (English), Dolby Digital 5.1 (French)
DVD: Dolby Digital 5.1 (English, French)
Subtitles: English for Hearing Impaired, French, Spanish
DVD Closed Captioned; Extras Subtitled
Release Date: October 16, 2012
Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Two single-sided, dual-layered discs (1 BD-50 & 1 DVD-9)
Blue Keepcase with Side Snap in Embossed Cardboard Slipcover
Also available in DVD packaging ($29.99 SRP) and on Instant Video
Previous DVDs: High-Flying Edition (August 2009) and Gold Collection (January 2001)

VIDEO and AUDIO

The Blu-ray's windowboxed 1.66:1 presentation looks quite good for the film's age. That age seems to have a different effect on the two mediums. The Elliott animation is more prone to grain than his live-action surroundings, which chips away at the intended seamlessness. Those live-action parts themselves exhibit the occasional grain and some shots lack sharpness. Still, spotless throughout, the element pleases. The color palette is slightly pale, which is typical for the era and just as I've always known the film to be. The dialogue recordings of the 5.1 DTS-HD master audio are clearly dated, but musical numbers inject some life (if not an overwhelming amount of depth). This is the best the film will look and sound for some time and fans should be more than all right with that.

"Brazzle Dazzle Effects" shows us how Pete's ride on Elliott's back was achieved. Terminus and Hoagy hunt Elliott in this deleted scene.

BONUS FEATURES

This disc loses points in the bonus features department, as it inexplicably sheds a number of the bonus features from the High-Flying Edition DVD released just three years ago. At least what is here is good and quite better than what most older live-action Disney films have gotten.
Sadly but unsurprisingly, all are presented in standard definition.

First and best is "Brazzle Dazzle Effects: Behind Disney's Movie Magic" (25:25), two great 2009 featurettes in one. Fifteen minutes are spent documenting the studio's history of blending animation and live action, touching upon the Alice comedies of the 1920s, mixed-medium segments from the 1940s, and technological advances made by Ub Iwerks and company. The remainder looks at Pete's Dragon, as narrator Sean Marshall (Pete from the film) becomes more of a storyteller recalling his experiences, while describing techniques employed over an assortment of behind-the-scenes footage. One comes away appreciating the challenging efforts of this production and other satisfyingly-sampled Disney works. The only unfortunate thing is that Marshall never appears on camera in the present.

The deleted storyboard sequence "Terminus & Hoagy Hunt Elliott" (2:27) uses rough pencil sketches and what sounds like archival audio to recreate a short cut scene whose sight gag humor isn't easy to appreciate here.

Pete and Elliott concept art is played in the "Boo Bop Bopbop Bop (I Love You, Too)" original song concept. Elliott shows up outside Pete's window among a theatrical reissue trailer's credits block.

In the "original song concept" for "Boo Bop Bopbop Bop (I Love You, Too)" (2:36), a man's '70s-sounding rendition plays over conceptual sketches of the boy and dragon's duet scene.

Finally, two Pete's Dragon reissue trailers (2:30) are presented in rough fullscreen. Previously identified as international and domestic trailers (though the order has been swapped here), these appear to be from the 1984 reissue and '90s television/video. Previews from the original release remain conspicuously absent.

This combo pack could have easily saved face by including the High-Flying Edition DVD. Instead, Disney has taken the trouble to author an inferior new DVD to accompany this lightened Blu-ray. At least, despite what the case says, the DVD includes all the same extras as the Blu-ray, just not all the extras from the High-Flying Edition.
The best explanation I can come up with for this approach is that buyers won't feel cheated about the Blu-ray having fewer extras than the DVD. The fact of the matter is most people caring enough to buy this movie on Blu-ray are probably either familiar with or owners of one of the film's DVD editions and are sure to be dissatisfied.

Both the Blu-ray and DVD open with trailers for Cinderella and Wreck-It Ralph, followed by a Pinocchio-themed anti-smoking PSA. The menus' Sneak Peeks listing repeats the first two, followed by promos for Disney Movie Rewards, Disney Parks, "Sofia the First", Peter Pan: Diamond Edition, Secret of the Wings, Brave, Cinderella II & Cinderella III 2-Movie Collection Blu-ray, Finding Nemo, and Planes.

WHAT'S MISSING?

One feature from the Gold Collection DVD of Pete's Dragon did not make the leap to the High-Flying Edition DVD: the 25-minute 1973 theatrical short Man, Monsters and Mysteries. Narrated by Sebastian Cabot, this two-reeler centered on Nessie, the elusive Loch Ness Monster (voiced by Sterling Holloway). That it combined live-action and animation while focusing on a potentially mythical fantastic creature made Man an apt inclusion and it sadly hasn't turned up on any DVD or Blu-ray since that 2001 disc.

More extras are dropped from the High-Flying Edition DVD: three original demo recordings (7:07) including a deleted one to be sung by a cut character, four pop versions of songs from the movie (12:00) from a 1970s promotional record, the set-top "Where's Elliott?: The Disappearing Dragon Game", five pages of text notes "About Pete's Dragon", an art gallery (comprised of 17 concept art stills, 26 production photos, and 14 publicity images), an excerpt from the Disney Channel's 1980s documentary series "Disney Family Album" (2:20) on Elliott animator Ken Anderson, an excerpt of the Halloween 1956 "Disneyland" episode (3:36) of Walt discussing "The Plausible Impossible", and the 1946 Donald Duck short Lighthouse Keeping (6:41).

Altogether, that is an hour of good content that has previously joined Pete's Dragon and doesn't here. I'm no business expert, but it seems like bad form to withhold this valuable, easily-located material. Anyone who thinks the studio is leaving off this content for the inevitable rerelease hasn't been paying much attention to Disney's Blu-ray methods. A mid-level catalog title like this isn't being revisited on the format anytime soon.

If you want to give Disney the benefit of the doubt and assume that disc space was a factor here, then know that at 36.3 GB, the BD is well under dual-layered capacity and would have had no trouble fitting an additional hour of standard def video.

The static new menu featured on Pete's Dragon Blu-ray and DVD is a downgrade from the High Flying Edition DVD's animated screen.

MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

Both discs feature a simplified menu that plays the "Candle in the Water" part of the film's suite over the cover art image. The DVD's submenus apply other score excerpts to other film stills. As always with Disney, the Blu-ray doesn't resume playback or let you place bookmarks.

Hardly changing the DVD artwork beyond its dimensions, the side-snapped Blu-ray case is topped by an obligatory cardboard slipcover includes a Disney Movie Rewards code as the lone insert.

Pete (Sean Marshall), Lampie (Mickey Rooney), and the newly reunited Nora (Helen Reddy) and Paul (Cal Bartlett) bid farewell to Elliott and to you, the reader.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

Pete's Dragon holds up as a fun and heartwarming film. It's the kind of movie you can watch half-heartedly at any time and skip sequences without feeling like you're missing anything. It's entertainment that belongs in the collections of all serious Disney fans and 1970s kids.

With its strong feature presentation and solid handful of extras, this 35th Anniversary Edition Blu-ray combo should be easy to recommend, but it's baffling and unfortunate that Disney couldn't retain all the extras they released to DVD just three years ago. Based on the format's modest sales figures, it's unreasonable to expect the studio to pour effort into producing new extras or trying to dig up old ones. It's not unreasonable, however, to expect all the supplements from a recent DVD being dragged and dropped onto this disc. Your best course of action is to pass the new DVD from this onto a friend and replace it with the High-Flying Edition one you hopefully already own. That's not ideal and requires more work from you than it should, but it will give you most of the film's DVD and Blu-ray accompaniment in a single case.

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35th Anniversary Blu-ray + DVD / High-Flying Edition DVD / Gold Collection DVD / Instant Video

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Related Reviews:
New to Blu-ray: The Santa Clause • Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted • Cinderella • Rock of Ages • Annie
1970s: The Rescuers • Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory • The Muppet Movie • Sigmund and the Sea Monsters: S1
Disney Musicals: Newsies • Mary Poppins • Bedknobs and Broomsticks • Enchanted • The Happiest Millionaire
'70s Disney Comedies: Freaky Friday (1977) • The Apple Dumpling Gang • The Aristocats
Directed by Don Chaffey: Greyfriars Bobby • The Three Lives of Thomasina



The Cast of Pete's Dragon:
Helen Reddy: The Muppet Show: Season Three | Mickey Rooney: The Fox and the Hound • Night at the Museum
Jim Dale: Hot Lead and Cold Feet • Unidentified Flying Oddball • Pushing Daisies: Season 1 | Sean Marshall: The Small One

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Reviewed October 13, 2012.



Text copyright 2012 DVDizzy.com. Images copyright 1977 Walt Disney Pictures and 2012 Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.