Pete’s Dragon Retrospective | Flying High at 45

Let’s take a look at Pete’s Dragon, a classic blend of live action and animation that turns 45 years old this year. I’m happy to be looking at it, rather than having to review its remake. Why is that? Well, even though there’s nothing wrong with the remake – it has strong visuals and character development – it just doesn’t have that same burning flame as the 2D original. The original Pete and his Dragon, Elliot, manage to hold a piece of magical wonder close to my heart, a memory that takes me back to childhood. And although the movie is extremely dated by today’s standards, there is no denying that there’s a sense of beauty in its animation. It has a clever use of camera to cut corners and most importantly, its warm characters that emote and feel relatable throughout. Sure, it’s an old movie, but it’s a good one. 

Disney churned out live action movies in the 70s, and this is one of those more dated musical outings. But although it feels in many ways like a Mary Poppins-inspired outing, it manages to take a fresh turn in its characters and design of Elliot. The story, based on an unpublished tale, really pushes at the possibilities of animation. It throws us into a plot that, (despite making us wonder what problems he will cause next), has us rooting for the dragon. A strong cast manages to pull this off, featuring the likes of Mickey Rooney, Sean Marshall and Helen Reddy, and despite only making moderate financial success, (8 million profit), has gone on to be a mainstay in the classic Disney treasure trove. I like this movie for what it brings to the table: a whole lot of cartoon dragon and a whole lot less for Dean Jones and Chimpanzees. 

Animated by Don Bluth, who would go on to create many other wonderful animations, we see a joyful relationship build between the two main characters. A film about friendship, it manages to overcome the stretched plot, hammy performances and dialogue and often poorly written scenes to deliver something ambitious in its blending of live action and animation. Even though it doesn’t always get it right. You’ll find yourself lost in the cuteness and likability factor of Elliot rather than worrying too much about the over-the-top nature of 70s Disney. Music has always been a category to judge the quality of a Disney movie, and Pete’s Dragon is no exception. The songs here are catchy and, although not as overly memorable as in some other films from this studio, are delivered with a clear love for the craft. Every actor genuinely looks like they are having a blast performing each routine.

It is extremely easy to get attached to Pete’s Dragon. Once we look past the dated aspects of the film, there is no reason why the whole family can’t enjoy this one. Sure, it is clear that it will never be at the top when one thinks of the best animated Disney films, but that doesn’t matter, because that was never the goal here. The goal was to make lovable, musical characters, a compelling story that has you supporting the protagonists to overcome the odds, and a sense of awe that will capture the hearts and imaginations of those of us watching, even 45 years later. Let’s hope the fire never goes out on this one.


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