On the “Pete’s Dragon” Wagon
When it was originally released as a film, the Disney movie musical Pete’s Dragon was mostly dismissed by the critics. Many thought the film was too long (it does run 128 minutes) and many found Helen Reddy’s performance as the character “Nora” to be cold and detached (she isn’t the warmest of Disney characters), but her story is about a woman trying to be strong in the face of personal loss, who only begins to melt when a young orphan comes into her life. Seldom has a character in a Disney film been played with such complexity, and even if it does cast an icy pallor on the story, it is appropriate in telling “Nora’s” portion of the story. I have always had a deep affection for Pete’s Dragon and, considering how much I hear it maligned by critics and historians, I come in contact with a lot of people who also grew up loving this film.
Pete’s Dragon was first released in 1977 with an enormous campaign by Disney to promote the piece and the gaggle of stars that would be appearing in it. Besides Reddy, Jim Dale, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Shelly Winters, Jim Backus, Jeff Conaway, Charles Tyner, and Jane Kean were among its ranks, and these were talented people, all with long careers in film, stage and television. A young boy named Sean Marshall played the part of “Pete” and, as is the case with most child stars, had a few more acting gigs (mostly in voiceover for animated features), and then grew up and away from show business (successfully, I might add).
The best part of Pete’s Dragon is arguably its catchy score by Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kasha. The Oscar-nominated “Candle on the Water” is a haunting torch song, and Helen Reddy sings it with such power and emotion in the film. When anyone hears “Brazzle Dazzle Day” it is impossible to get the melody out of your brain, and the sequence of Pete, Nora and her father Lampie whitewashing the lighthouse is visually stunning. Shelly Winters as the evil hillbilly-esque Mrs. Gogan (Pete’s legal guardian) and her posse of redneck kin make a meal out of the hilariously diabolical “The Happiest Home in These Hills.” But all of the songs are appealing, fun, and some are even character driven such as Dr. Terminus’s (Jim Dale) “Passamaquoddy” that reveals what a flim-flam man he is, or Pete and Nora’s duet “It’s Not Easy” that sheds light on how they are both reluctant to trust. The only song that feels preachy (and too long) is “There’s Room for Everyone”, but even that is beautifully choreographed and imparts a central message of the film.
The score, the colorful characters, the heartwarming story, and the atmospheric locale of a Maine fishing village make such a great argument for Pete’s Dragon to come to the Broadway stage. Ah, yes…there is that little problem of how one creates an enormous, appearing/disappearing dragon for the stage. With advent of The Lion King, and the technology employed in most Disney musicals (not to mention the advances in puppetry with the forthcoming King Kong) it seems to me a creative solution can be found. For those who grouse about a critically dismissed Disney film coming to the stage, I point to the success of Newsies and argue how careful rethinking and imagination can make anything happen. I think there are enough of us out there in the world who love Pete’s Dragon that we wouldn’t mind seeing it come to the stage. Let’s all get on the Pete’s Dragon wagon!