movie review: pete’s dragon

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August 15, 2012 by jooshanoosh

I saw that Pete’s Dragon was going to be on TV last week so I recorded it to watch with my kids. When I was a boy I saw Pete’s Dragon a bunch of times, but my children have never seen it. For some reason, I remember watching it in the school library during recess and lunch (no friends) and I think at some point I had a vinyl record of the soundtrack. But I thought my kids would like to watch it with me, and I was right! They loved it. I thought it was actually really weird.

Pete’s Dragon is the story of young orphan Pete, who has a bad grill and a giant mop of red hair, and who is trying to escape the greedy fat clutches of Shelley Winters and Kenickie from Grease. They bought him or something, and they use him as a slave. There’s a big song about it. Pete doesn’t look badly mistreated to me, but he could sure use a haircut! (What is it about little boys with long hair that irritates me so much? Especially on TV and movies. Remember Sam from Diffrent Strokes?) The special thing about Pete is that he has a pet dragon named Elliot, who is animated and generally invisible (budget.) There is no explanation given for how Pete found this dragon, or why he follows him around. As a child this didn’t bother me, but as an adult I find it alarming. Elliot is like an evil spirit that Pete can’t shake. I don’t want my kids picking up dragons or even associating with them. Of course my children have parents, orthodontics, and a monthly trip to Craig’s Cuts.

The movie takes place in a coastal Maine town called Passamaquoddy, but it’s clearly California. It’s too hilly and sagebrushy for New England. Do you remember how Little House on the Prairie was set in Kansas and/or Wisconsin, but it always just looked like Santa Clarita? It’s like that.

Pete gets adopted by Nora, who is played by Helen Reddy. This is the movie’s most problematic casting. Helen Reddy was a big feminist singer in the late 70’s. She was Australian, but she does an American accent here and mostly succeeds. But she has an alarmingly pointy face. She has this giant set of lips and a mannish jawline and a sharp nose and I couldn’t get over any of it. She’s not an attractive lady. I bet in real life she’s pretty, but she’s not meant for the screen. And she pulls all of these faces and has one or two pretty horrible line readings. You get the idea that they just cast her to sing “Candle on the Water,” a big ballad she belts out at the top of a lighthouse, and which you and I know to be the second most fast-forwarded song in all of cinema (second only to “Cheer Up, Charlie” from Willy Wonka.) But she’s likable enough and very perky. She does some high kicks in a beer joint and calls the local fishmongers things like “buncha ding dongs.”

Nora’s father is played by functioning fire hydrant Mickey Rooney, even though Helen Reddy is four feet taller. Mickey plays “drunk” a lot, which means he talks really loud and makes coo-coo eyes at the camera. He also talks to other men in the town two inches from their face, which may read as “drunk” or also as “lonely.” Mickey’s character is named Lampy, because he runs the lighthouse and everyone should be named after their job. Mickey and Nora find Pete and sing a bunch of songs about how the world is big enough for everyone and then they paint the lighthouse and sing about having a razzle-dazzle day. Pete seems fine with this arrangement; but I think in reality he would be angry and sullen. He’s an orphan! He has an imaginary dragon. He got bought and enslaved by Shelley Winters. He ran away. He winds up with an Australian lady with a horse face and the town drunk. I don’t get what he’s so happy about. But some people are just like that.

I don’t want to spoil the ending. But basically Elliot the dragon causes all kinds of mayhem in the town and gets Pete into all kinds of trouble with the local schoolmarm, and there’s this big subplot about a fraudulent traveling salesman, and then everything gets resolved because Elliot saves a ship from crashing into a coral reef. The captain of the boat, it turns out, is Nora’s boyfriend Paul, who has been missing for months and everyone thought was dead. But turns out he just had really bad amnesia, until Elliot turned his bed over in the night and he cracked his head and suddenly regained his memory (which is always a dependable cure for amnesia.) Everyone is happy in the end except Shelley Winters, who keeps falling into mud. You feel good at the conclusion, and there’s some hope that Pete will finally have a new home and maybe a date with a #2 hair clipper. My son Hugh actually teared up at the end, which gave me plenty of opportunities to tease him about showing his emotions. But isn’t it interesting to revisit movies you loved as a kid? Because they are always a little more strange, and a little more contrived, than you remember. Do not get me started on The Cat from Outer Space!

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