1977’s Pete’s Dragon was my favorite Disney movie when I was growing up, but I hadn’t watched it since I was little. Recently, I revisited some films I loved as a child only to be disappointed by them. So naturally, I was afraid the same was going to happen to this one as well.
The film follows a young boy, Pete, who’s escaped with his dragon, Elliot, from his abusive foster family. The two of them come to the fishing town of Passamaquoddy, where they meet a kind lighthouse owner, Nora (Helen Reddy) and her father, played by Mickey Rooney.
The songs are some of Disney’s best. It’s hard to point out highlights, since all of them are so memorable. My favorite might be the opening number, “The Happiest Home in These Hills,” which is as memorable of an opening as there could be. They say that in most films, the part you remember the least is the beginning. But in Pete’s Dragon, it’s one of the best scenes and probably the most vivid memory I had from this movie. The choreography and the creepiness of Pete’s orphan family chasing him through the swampy forest is still ingrained in my head all these years later and sets the tone for the rest of the film.
The dark tone shifts and we end up getting more of a campy musical feel the rest of the way out. The musical numbers are well-choreographed, especially the chorus line sequence at the saloon for “I Saw a Dragon.”
The plot development often gets halted for the musical numbers, and spends a lot of time focusing on characters’ motives and desires rather than building tensions.
Elliot, himself, is as adorable as any Disney character. He elevates every scene he’s in. In fact, the biggest problem is probably the fact that he only gets 22 minutes of total screen time in a movie that’s 134 minutes long. It’s still better than the original plan, which was to have him absent in the movie altogether, remaining in Pete’s imagination only.
Most films from the ’70s are going to have moments when they feel dated, and so does Pete’s Dragon, especially with some of the physical comedy.
This one isn’t without its fair share of plot holes. For instance, it doesn’t make much sense why Pete waits almost the entire movie to show Elliot to Nora. He has no reason to hide him from her. In fact, Pete keeps Elliot hidden for most of the film, which feels more like a budgetary constraint rather than an artistic decision.
Still, Pete’s Dragon is a lot of fun. Kids will enjoy it, and it’s completely tolerable for adults. The movie speaks to anyone who’s ever owned a pet and will make you tear up at the end.