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In New England in the early 20th century, Pete is a nine-year-old orphan escaping from his brutal adoptive parents, the Gogans, with his only friend, a cartoon dragon named Elliott. They successfully escape to Passamaquoddy, Maine, and live with Nora, a lighthouse keeper, and her father, Lampie. Elliott is sought for medicinal purposes by the corrupt Dr. Terminus. Written by
Matthew Anscher <email@example.com>
Too many people spend too much time comparing Disney movies to each other, as if to say that every Disney movie made should unfold in such a way as to easily identify it as a "Disney Movie." That's a shame, as each movie should be judged on it's own contributions to the motion picture lexicon. Fortunately for Pete's Dragon, it contributes something that is essential and valuable to a child's world: fun.
There's nothing too serious in Pete's Dragon. Granted, the catalyst for the action in the film is a boy running away from an abusive family, only to encounter an equally abusive society (not to mention a scheming charlatan who wants to capture - and kill - Pete's Dragon for his own monetary gain), but all involved in the production are aware that their target audience is children, and so all of the aforementioned is handled with kid gloves. The best example of this is the acting.
The cast does their best to have fun with their character and, as such, contributes greatly to the light-hearted tone of the film. In particular, the villains are played with great, over-the-top gusto, which is exactly what is needed in a kids movie. You want to teach children a lesson, not scare the crap out of them. As such, Shelley Winters as Ma Gogan and Jim Dale as Doc Terminus are classic kiddie villains: Winters stomps through her scenes in a bluster of hilarious hillbilly kookiness, while Dale steals every scene he's in - and nearly the whole show - in a deliciously maniacal role that should have one him an oscar - seriously!
Any actor can bring on the tears and boo-hoo their way through an "emotionally intense" role; they're a dime a dozen. It takes a real actor to come up with the kind of performance Dale did, in which every line of dialogue is nailed, and his voice and his body seem to be in completely in synch with each other and with the character. There is not one word left untouched by his genius. Especially fun are his interactions with his sidekick, Hoagy, played by Red Buttons. The two are perfect comic foils. They are no matches, however, for the straight-shooting Nora.
Nora (Helen Reddy), along with her father Lampie (Mickey Rooney) tend to the local lighthouse. It is in these two characters that children find their protectors. In any kids movie, there needs to be at least one character on screen with which children can find comfort and solace. Reddy plays Nora as a down-to-earth, take no bull lady who becomes a mother figure to Pete. Rooney plays Lampie as a drunken old coot who rides the fence about Pete until about halfway through, at which time he, too, joins the side of good. There's a lesson in this movie for adults, too.
Nora and Lampie both learn a little about life from Pete. Nora had decided to keep people at arm's length for fear of losing them (as she did her beau, a seaman who was lost at sea). Through her encounters with Pete, she learns to open up and allow love back into her life, this time in the form of motherly love. Lampie, too, becomes attached to the kid, and, throughout the process of his daughter and Pete bonding, learns that there's more to life than the bottle: there's family. These, really, are important lessons for adults, and ones that are never dated, rather, always applicable to any time and place. So is the lesson for children.
At the heart of Pete's Dragon is a simple message for children: hold tight to all that is right, no matter how bad life gets, and good things will come. Pete escapes a horrid life slaving away for the wretched Gogan family, only to run into the arms of a civilized society that looks down on him because of he's an outsider. He's anything but welcomed, and when things start going wrong, he's the first one to be blamed. No matter how hard he tries, society won't believe him, or accept him. He could easily make the wrong choice: give in and become the ruffian they all think he is or, worse, do what society did to him, and turn his back on his friend, Elliot, who is partly to blame for Pete's predicament, as he pulls pranks while he's invisible, leaving Pete to take the rap. In the end, his perseverance pays off: the town embraces him and he gets a family. This lesson is learned, as is to be expected in a musical, with a song and a dance.
The musical numbers are by far the weakest element in the movie. The songs are simple, yet they work (believe me, after you watch the movie, you'll find yourself spontaneously singing the choruses the next day). The dancing is the most difficult to digest, as it is often stiff and pointless. That's okay, though, as the story and the acting more than make up for it. When all is said and done, Pete's Dragon is everything a kids movie should be: educating and entertaining.
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