(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching, why it’s worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)
The Movie: Pete’s Dragon (1977)
Where You Can Stream It: Disney+
The Pitch: It’s a Disney movie about an abused boy with a not-so-imaginary dragon friend being chased by a family of cruel hillbillies who want to make him their personal slave. If that doesn’t sell you on giving this one a shot, nothing will.
Why It’s Essential Viewing: Pete’s Dragon showcases a fascinating moment in time for the Mouse House. It’s a live action/animation hybrid that technologically paved the way for Who Framed Roger Rabbit a decade later. It was made at a time when many of the old guard at Disney were either gone or on their way out, the beginning of a dark period for this particular studio that would end with the second Golden Era, officially kicked off by 1989’s The Little Mermaid.
The late ’70s to early ’80s was a fascinating time for Disney. They were a little lost as a company, trying to find their place in a post-Watergate/post-Vietnam cynical era and as a result they doubled down on a darker material. This is the era that gave us The Black Hole and The Black Cauldron.
As a result Pete’s Dragon is equal parts mean and silly. It’s about a young orphan boy named Pete (Sean Marshall) who is adopted by the dastardly Gogans, a bunch of filthy hillbillies who torture the poor kid and work him to the bone. He runs away with the help of his sometimes invisible dragon, Elliott, and finds a new home in a New England fishing village called Passamaquoddy.
There he meets a lovable old drunk lighthouse keeper (Mickey Rooney) and his caring adult daughter (Helen Reddy), but the Gogans track him down, enlisting the help of a snake oil salesman named Doc Terminus (Jim Dale) to get their “property” back.
A Different Kind of Musical
Top top it all off it’s a musical and you get some real insane and decidedly non-family friendly corkers in there, like the number that kicks off the movie where the Gogans are chasing Pete through the woods and trying to coax him out of hiding by singing sweetly about how much they love and miss him, only to switch over to how badly they’re going to torture him once they catch the poor kid. They alternate between sweet and sinister and it’s a blast.
There’s also another number where Jim Dale and Red Buttons gleefully sing about how they’re going to cut the dragon to pieces and sell off its parts as miracle cures. I remind you, this is a Disney movie.
You ever notice how in musicals everyone everywhere is always a professional singer? Not in Pete’s Dragon, and that’s one of the things I love about this movie. The boy, Sean Marshall, sings his stuff a little off key and Shelley Winters is unquestionably a great actress and plays the matriarch of the Gogans with ghoulish delight, but is clearly tone-deaf, which gives the movie a whole lot of personality. If people randomly burst out in song in real life it’d sound way more like Pete’s Dragon than The Sound of Music, that’s for sure.
A Movie That’s Somehow Mean and Wholesome
It’s impossible for me to be impartial on this film. It was the very first movie I saw in a theater during its early ’80s re-release and I must have watched it a hundred times as a kid, so take my recommendation with that in mind.
Pete’s Dragon is so ingrained in my personal development that just hearing a piece of the score sends me back to being 6 years old again. Still, I can be fairly certain that for die hard Disney fans this film will at least be a curiosity, a remnant of a different time that has all the hallmarks of a Disney classic while also embracing a decidedly mean undercurrent.
Almost everybody in this movie shits on this poor kid all the time. The Gogans want to enslave (and maybe straight up murder) him, Doc Terminus and Hoagie want to kidnap him and use him as bait to capture his dragon, the local school teacher beats his knuckles with a stick and the rest of town thinks he’s bad luck, connecting his arrival with their fishing expeditions drying up.
But despite all that it’s still as wholesome as you’d want a classic Disney film to be. Like I said, it’s an oddity that’s worth a revisit if you haven’t seen it for a long time or are a newbie who is at all curious about it.
Pete’s Dragon (as well as its remake, by the way) can be streamed on Disney+.
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