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  Pete's Dragon Secret Friends
Year: 1977
Director: Don Chaffey
Stars: Sean Marshall, Helen Reddy, Jim Dale, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Shelley Winters, Jane Kean, Jim Backus, Charles Tyner, Jeff Conaway, Gary Morgan, Cal Bartlett, Charlie Callas, Walter Barnes, Al Checco, Henry Slate, Jack Collins, Robert Easton
Genre: Musical, Comedy, FantasyBuy from Amazon
Rating:  5 (from 2 votes)
Review: It's the dead of night in a Maine forest, and it looks as if orphan Pete (Sean Marshall) is flying through the trees unaided, but he's actually being carried by something unseen. He is being chased by the dreaded Gogans, led by the matriarch Ma Gogan (Shelley Winters), who want him as their slave having "bought" him unscrupulously, but Pete has a secret weapon, and it's the creature that has helped him escape. He can turn invisible, breathe fire and fly, but he's Pete's best - and only - friend. He's Elliott and he's a bona fide, one hundred percent dragon.

Disney was headed into the doldrums by 1977, not as bad as it would get in the eighties, but nevertheless it was felt that their output was growing less impressive with every release. Of course, they were still far more successful than some of the other Hollywood studios, but this seemed to be on the back of a past history enjoyed under the tutelage of Walt, who by this time was long gone. And so it was that when Pete's Dragon was released, it garnered unimpressed reviews and a general shaking of the head that this was what Disney were now reduced to.

But wait, because many of the children who were taken to see it at the cinema, or watched it on home video (it was the first Disney film to appear on the medium) actually thoroughly enjoyed it. It was certainly a step up from the usual live action fare from the House of Mouse - which mostly had taken the form of underwhelming and supposedly wholesome comedies that tested the patience of much of the audience - and had the added attraction of featuring an animated character as its hero's sidekick. Despite the detractors' opinion that even Elliott was substandard, he was an affectionate creation far preferable to the CGI he would have been rendered in if made today.

Don Bluth was the director of animation here, and he was no slouch, so how bad could it really have been? In truth, it was far from a classic, with weak songs (and plenty of them), a tendency towards mawkish sentiment, and the dragon of the title offscreen for too long, and even when he was present he was conveniently - for the budget - invisible. Brightening things up, however, were a troupe of reliable character actors, playing as broadly as the slapstick. Best among them was Jim Dale as the villainous Dr Terminus, the owner of a medicine show along with his assistant Red Buttons who when he realises that Elliott is genuine, wants to capture him to make him into various cures.

And not only that, but the Gogans are still on Pete's trail, though they only turn up again towards the end, just when they thought you'd forgotten about them. Luckily, also present there's the duo of lighthouse keeper Lampie (such imaginative names!) played by Mickey Rooney as a comedy drunk, and his virtuous daughter Nora (Helen Reddy) who is pining for a fiancé lost at sea and of course the perfect mother figure for the young protagonist. Snappy this is not, especially in its longest version, and the mischievous Elliott is something of a wanton vandal, antics we're supposed to laugh along with, but as an imaginary friend who grows more real for the people Pete meets he struck a chord in many who warmed to him, offscreen and on. Pete's Dragon was never going to supplant Mary Poppins in the live action combined with animation pantheon, but its heart was in the right place.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark

 

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Don Chaffey  (1917 - 1990)

British director best known for directing fantasy favourites Jason and the Argonauts and One Million Years B.C, both of which featured groundbreaking Ray Harryhausen effects. Chaffey also directed Hammer's Viking Queen, but much of his work was in television, both in the UK (The Prisoner, Man In a Suitcase) and, later, the US (Charlie's Angels, CHiPs, Airwolf). Also made kids' favourites Greyfriars Bobby and Pete's Dragon for Disney.

 
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