At first glance, Pete’s Dragon isn’t a Disney classic that has aged too well. The 1977 blend of live action and animation certainly isn’t as memorable or entertaining as the previous decade’s Mary Poppins, and the dated special effects both films utilize — as groundbreaking as they were at the time — don’t look especially great today.
Still, the film isn’t without its merits, although I suspect most fans of it are influenced by the nostalgia factor than anything else. It’s hard to believe many kids were able to stay engaged for very long during Pete’s Dragon — it runs well over two hours long and the animated titular dragon is only onscreen for about 20 minutes. As a musical though, the film’s not too bad, and it garnered two Academy Award nominations — one for the score and one for the song “Candle on the Water.”
As the film opens, we see orphaned Pete (Sean Marshall) running away from the Gogans, a family of hillbillies that claims to own him. He gets some help from his best friend, a big, clumsy dragon named Elliott. At first, Elliott's invisible to everyone except Pete, but he causes plenty of trouble in the seaside town of Passamaquoddy where they look to hide from the Gogans.
There, Pete befriends lighthouse caretaker Nora (Helen Reddy), who becomes an instant mother figure for Pete, and her constantly tipsy father, Lampie (Mickey Rooney). But just because no one can see Elliott doesn’t stop a snake oil salesman and his “intern” (Jim Dale, Red Buttons) from trying to obtain the dragon for their own schemes. Add to that the fact that the Gogans are hot on Pete’s trail, and the film follows an expected trajectory as Elliott helps Pete get out of plenty of jams.
Pete’s Dragon is an exceptionally warm-hearted Disney affair — cloyingly so at points, but mostly just sweet and good-natured. First-time actor Marshall does a nice naturalistic job as Pete, grounding the film in his innocence, and carrying quite a heavy load for such an inexperienced performer. Much of the humor is fairly uninteresting slapstick stuff, and the film is definitely too long for most kids to handle, but Pete’s Dragon is mostly adequate family fare with a few shining moments, like the song and dance number “Brazzle Dazzle Day” with Marshall, Reddy and Rooney.
For fans of the film, the new High-Flying Edition isn’t just a simple cash-in effort on Disney’s part, but a significant upgrade from the 2001 Gold Classic Collection DVD, at least as far as special features go. The highlight of the new bonus material is a featurette on the sodium lighting special effects method used to create the blend of live action and animation. This 25-minute extra also looks at the history of Disney experimenting with this concept, and is narrated by Marshall. Other new bonuses include a deleted storyboard sequence, demo recordings of a number of the songs from the film and promotional pop versions of four songs from the film.
Carried over from the previous DVD release are a number of other features, including a game, trailers, art galleries, excerpts from an ‘80s Disney documentary and a cartoon short from the ‘40s starring Donald Duck.