Anyone remember a disturbing film from the early ’90s called “Radio Flyer”? If not, here is Roger Ebert’s review, which is pretty spot-on. In the film, there are two little boys whose mother marries this guy who spends every night beating the crap out of the little brother. Somehow, the older brother gets it in his head that he and his little brother need to build a flying machine out of little brother’s beloved little red wagon (there’s your title significance), so that he can escape this abuse.
The twisted part is that the plan actually works and the little boy escapes from his stepfather and flies away. Too damn bad for his brother and his mother, I guess. And the really twisted part is that this was a children’s movie. G-rating and everything. No less than Tom Hanks narrated the story, Elijah Wood played the older brother, and there was a fast-food tie-in toy as well. My memories may be foggy but I promise you I’m not making any of this up.
Watching “Pete’s Dragon” all the way through for the first time ever gave me a very bad “Radio Flyer” flashback.
In this case, we don’t ever explicitly see Pete getting beaten by his horrifying foster family, but it is heavily implied. And, of course, the film assures it’s young audience that one can escape from such a situation through magical means. Cute.
All seriousness out of the way, this movie is a nasty reminder of just how crappy Disney movies were in the 70’s. So what about the dragon? At my best estimate, he’s onscreen for a grand total of twenty minutes. See, Elliot can become invisible. He does so for two reasons. The first is extremely evident: it saves a lot of money on animation. No wonder Don Bluth quit after this. The second reason is so that everyone in town can be convinced that poor little Pete is absolutely balls-out insane. As a better pop-culture critic than I once said, “Some f***ing friend.”
The only person in town allowed to see Elliot early on is Lampy. Naturally, he’s the town drunk. He’s a lighthouse keeper, but since he’s completely wasted most of the time the job really falls onto his daughter. She’s been pining away for her love, whose sailboat was lost at seas years ago. Who better to enter her life right now than a delusional little orphan boy, eh?
Mention must also be made of Doctor Terminus. He’s the only person besides Lampy who’s convinced Elliot exists. Which means, of course, that he wants to kill Elliot, butcher him, and use various bits of his anatomy in his quack medicines. He even sings a very long, terrifying song in which he explains this plot in excruciating detail.
So, in short, this is a Disney movie with a completely f***ed up world view. At least the DVD has some interesting features, like “Man, Monsters, and Myth”. If nothing else, we learn that Walt Disney wholeheartedly believes the older version of the “Instinct For Dragons” theory (a theory that seems designed purposefully to make imaginative people bang their heads against the wall. Would you like to listen to me bang my head against the wall?)
The Best Parts:
2 minutes in – Don Bluth! Wee!.
3 minutes in – Ah yes, come to Maine, we’ve got Tree Ferns!
7 minutes in – Moose wallow!
(For those not in the know, suffice it to say you don’t want to go anywhere near mysterious large pits of “mud” out in the forest…)
10 minutes in – Oh yeah, there’s a dragon in this movie.
15 minutes in – “Turn invisible, Elliot! We need to go into town and the animation budget is running out!”
17 minutes in – “MY CABBAGES!!!”
27 minutes in – “OK, Elliot. You can start giving Don Bluth something to do again.”
35 minutes in – Because, certainly, there is such a thing as “a plain ordinary dragon”.
41 minutes in – Land-Boat!
42 minutes in – “MY CABBAGES!!!”
45 minutes in – OK, I think I understand who this character is. You can stop singing now.
47 minutes in – “All he nee-eeds is yoo-ou!!!”
50 minutes in – Anyone else catch the “why am I in this movie” look Helen Reddy just gave?
52 minutes in – “Somewhere! Out there! Beneath the pale moonlight…” (The two songs really do sync up; try singing it.)
1 hour – Because this kind of set-up always ends well.
1 hour, 7 minutes in – “Hey, there’s that completely insane kid! Let’s run up to him!”
1 hour, 12 minutes in – Go Elliot! Go Elliot! (You’ll just have to take their word for it.)
1 hour, 16 minutes in – Over at TV Tropes, we call this a “Break the Cutie” scene. I’d say this is starting to border on Deus Angst Machina.
1 hour, 17 minutes in – I’ve got a question. Did he actually see the dragon?
1 hour, 18 minutes in – Should I be scared that I already knew this currently obscure angle of dragon folklore?
1 hour, 21 minutes in – “SHUT THE HELL UP!!!”
1 hour, 25 minutes in – Right, I’m sorry. This is creepy.
1 hour, 31 minutes in – We’re well over the hump, just so you know.
1 hour, 33 minutes in – Eli Roth unavailable for comment.
1 hour, 35 minutes in – “Is this legal, man?” “Only here, and in Mississippi.”
1 hour, 43 minutes in – OK, here’s what gets me. They would all know that Pete is telling the truth if Elliot would stop f***ing being invisible for once!
1 hour, 47 minutes in – “Do NOT want!!!” 😦
1 hour, 49 minutes in – He’s probably busy singing a song about how his elbow kind of itches.
1 hour, 54 minutes in – Why doesn’t he just eat them?
1 hour, 56 minutes in – Goofy holler!
1 hour, 58 minutes in – “Hey, is that a mating call I hear?”
2 hours, 3 minutes in – Burt Reynolds?
2 hours, 8 minutes in – “And remember! You’re supposed to be invisible!”
Classic Lines of Dialogue:
“Hey Maw, why don’t we just buy another orphan?” – One of the Gogunns
“I’m sorry! Real sorry! I was just telling my dragon not to bump his head on the sign!” – Pete
“What’s the matter? It’s a hand, not a shark!” – Nora
“Why do you think they call me Doc? Because they sail their boats into me?” – Doc Terminus
Things I Learned from this Movie/Book/Whatever:
* – If you see lobster traps, you are in Maine. Pay no attention to the Tree Ferns!
* – It’s possible to be classified as both a fish and a mammal. (I commend my younger self for having no idea how the hell that’s supposed to work even back then.)
* – There’s nothing like waking up to the dulcet tones of Mickey Rooney screaming at you.
Things That Can Save Any Movie:
Cool Creatures? Elliot would be kind of cool if we could see him once in a while.
Good Soundtrack? Not really.
Hot Guys? No.
Pretty Scenery? Once again, Tree Ferns in Maine.
Nifty Animation/Special Effects/Illustrations? I am wiling to forgive Don Bluth a lot. And anyway, this was clearly not his idea. His character animation, as always, is top-notch.
Drinking Game Potential? Drink when Elliot is actually onscreen.
Head Movie Potential? No.
Danny and a lot of invisible magical beings following him around…
A Walt Disney Film made in 1977. Written by S. S. Field and Malcolm Marmorstein and directed by Don Chaffey.
Sean Marshall, Mickey Rooney, Helen Reddy, and Jim Dale.
The Animated Films of Don Bluth excerpt – Informs us that “Pete’s Dragon” came very close to being a very dark film (I’m not sure if that would have made it better). Also details why Don had to quit after this.