There’s Room For Every One In This World

A lonely love for the original Pete’s Dragon as well as the new.
Petes Dragon
By  · Published on August 12th, 2016

“It’s a Brazzle Dazzle day, so throw off the past and everything in it.”

Why do we have to throw off the past? As much as I love the song it’s from, in the 1977 version of Pete’s Dragon, I don’t agree with the lyric above, which out of context seems to be more fitting for someone who believes remakes are meant to wipe away and replace the originals. That’s not me. I think there’s room for every version of a movie, good and bad.

“Brazzle Dazzle Day” is really just another song about forgetting about your worries and your strife and thinking only of the present bare necessities of life. I guess. The songs in this movie, even the specifically Oscar-nominated “Candle on the Water,” are not very good. I’ll admit it. Never mind that they collectively were also Oscar-nominated in the Original Song Score category.

They’re catchy, but they also seem made up on the spot. They’re mostly ridiculous and mostly repetitive, and still I mostly love the hell out of them. There are other parts of the movie that are similarly awful, such as child actor Sean Marshall’s performance, but it remains one of my favorite family films of all time. A lot of that, I know, is just that I grew up with it.

I also just happen to have an affinity for a lot of things that came out the year I was born, but this one truly was part of my life as far back as I can remember. And it fit in with a lot of other things I loved around that time, including the old-timey musical maritime village of Popeye and the orphan being chased by crooks who want to exploit her of the also-musical Annie.

Most of the movies it relates to are better, including the 1972 version of The Poseidon Adventure, with which it shares two great actors (Shelley Winters and Red Buttons), the two songwriters (Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn), and even a rogue wave. Its problem of slowing down for sappy songs sung by mother figures reminds of the great Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

I think there’s actually a kind of Roald Dahl-like feel to Pete’s Dragon with its disturbing violence against children. In fact, of this summer’s Disney movies, the Dahl adaptation The BFG feels to me more like kin to the original Pete’s Dragon than the Pete’s Dragon remake does. The latter is also technically a better movie, but I still would rather watch the 1977 version any day.

I love the Don Bluth-animated cartoon dragon. I love the practical tricks and gags, some of which contribute to a slapstick atmosphere similar to that of the crowd scenes in Superman II. I even love that most of the effects spectacle is more about depicting an invisible creature traipsing through the real world than a cartoon dragon believably fitting physically in this world.

I love Mickey Rooney’s drunken shtick. And the unnecessary interruptive musical number in the bar. I love the subtle conflict between Helen Reddy’s character and Jane Kean’s schoolmarm. I love how Elliot creates Elliot-shaped holes in the schoolhouse like a cartoon character should. I love Winters. I love Buttons. I really love Jim Dale as the the medicine showman Dr. Terminus, and I really love his costume and his sail-powered wagon.

I love that there’s so much scene chewing in a movie that totally should be over the top because it’s about a 2D-animated dragon (I love that I never realized one of the baddies is Jeff Conaway, one year from Grease, speaking of the performers). I kind of love that none of its modern critics and mockers get that and take it all so seriously, cultural shockers included.

I love that there’s a lot going on in this movie, so much that there are multiple villains and those set up in the very first scene don’t show up again until well into the second hour (I love that it’s so long, by the way). And I love that all the seemingly overstuffed characters and subplots tie together with a theme of believing in unlikely things and how some (elixirs) turn out fake and others (Elliot the dragon; Paul the fiancee) are really there.

Most importantly of all, I love that I can continue to love the first Pete’s Dragon and not be threatened at all by the second Pete’s Dragon and that the remake turned out to not even bother trying to copy the original anyway – they’re as different as apples and record players. The 1977 is so much more unique and badly directed, the 2016 so unoriginal and perfectly directed.

There’s room for both, and there’s room to love both for different reasons, just as there’s room to love them each in addition to the other movies considered similar. And there’s room to find problems with both for different reasons. To paraphrase another Pete’s Dragon tune, there’s room for every one of the movies that may bring joy to anyone.

And hopefully, there’s room for others out there who can be fans of an original and a reimagined copy, especially anybody who shares in my own love for the two distinct Pete’s Dragon movies. If not, I will align myself with another lyric from the movie, directed especially at the much-dismissed and much-maligned original, which I feel lonely in loving:

“I’ll be your candle on the water. My love for you will always burn.”

Related Topics: ,

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.