Sean Marshall is young orphan Pete, whose best friend is a dragon no one else seems to be able to see. Fleeing the filthy Grogan clan (Shelley Winters, Charles Tyner, and Jeff Conaway) who wish to ‘own’ the boy, Pete ends up in the small town of Passamaquoddy, where lighthouse keeper Mickey Rooney and his daughter Helen Reddy take the boy in. Reddy won’t hear any talk of this dragon, though, but drunk Rooney claims to have seen it for himself. Meanwhile, travelling snake oil salesman Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale, with top hat and English accent- he’s the villain) and his associate Hoagy (Red Buttons) arrive, and when Dr. Terminus gets wind of the story of Pete’s dragon, he sees dollar signs, and tries to catch it for himself. It’s invisible, it doesn’t go well. Jim Backus has a cameo as the Mayor of Passamaquoddy.
An attempt by Disney to mix live-action with animation, ala their previous “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”, this 1977 fantasy from director Don Chaffey (“Jason and the Argonauts”, “One Million Years B.C.”) and screenwriter Malcolm Marmorstein (“Return From Witch Mountain”) is neither as bad as I expected, nor anywhere near as enchanting as “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”.
For me, what actually holds it back is the very thing most people (even those who dislike it) tend to praise: The title character. The animation has dated badly (using it for scenes set in broad daylight was a mistake), and the voice given to the dragon by Charlie Callas is an insipid disaster. It renders the character sans personality, let alone voice. And that surprises me, because the animation department on this film features known names like Animation Director (and Disney traitor) Don Bluth (who worked on Disney’s “Robin Hood” before making his own films like “An American Tail” and “The Land Before Time”), Ken Anderson (screenwriter of “Pinocchio” and “The AristoCats”), and Ron Clements (Co-director of “The Little Mermaid” and “Aladdin”) as one of the character animators. Whoever actually came up with the idea of the voice itself is a tool. Callas makes it sound like a muffled fart. The central conceit is cute in theory, but the execution is poor, though there’s some fun to be had in the scenes where the dragon is invisible to the audience and causing slapstick calamities. For the most part, though, the dragon is not remotely interesting or endearing, and pretty much the only drawback to the film. Sadly, it’s a pretty big drawback, a one-note character who should’ve remained invisible, ala “Harvey” the rabbit. Speaking of rabbits, those who want some animation with their live-action best watch “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” instead. That 1988 film finally got the mix right.
Thankfully, there’s enough human interest to have kept me awake, as the film works best as a comedy, oddly enough. The funniest thing about the whole film is that the only person other than young Sean Marshall (who isn’t too bad in the lead) who can see the dragon is a drunk Mickey Rooney. He’s mugging mercilessly but The Mick is fun, if unsubtle. He steals the film, really, and does a better job of selling the dopey dragon than the animators do! I also enjoyed the early work by Shelley Winters, Charles Tyner, and an unrecognisable Jeff Conaway. Winters and Tyner can’t sing for the life of it, but are nonetheless very, very funny, especially the latter. I’m not a fan of musicals, but hearing these grotty, unpleasant people singing about all the horrible things they’re gonna do to little Pete is genuinely funny, and a tad dark for Disney. The songs aren’t exactly memorable, and the singing is uneven, but they are undoubtedly lively and upbeat. Disney songs ended up taking themselves way too seriously from about the 1990s onwards. I do wish there weren’t so many songs, though.
Ex-pat Aussie Helen Reddy is surprisingly charismatic and appealing in an admittedly not terribly interesting role. She’s also quite clearly the best singer in the film, and although no Angela Lansbury on screen, she’s not as insufferably Julie Andrews-ish as…well, Julie Andrews. Jim Dale and Red Buttons seem to have wandered in from “Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines” or one of Disney’s more slapstick-oriented live-action films, but like I said, the film works better on that level anyway (The whole thing is like a blend of that film, “Harvey”, “Mary Poppins” and “Oliver!”). Dale is particularly effective, though Buttons is amusing in drag at one point. It’s completely shocking and wrong, but the bit where Dale (who I swear looks dressed like the villainous fox from “Pinocchio” but in human form) claims he has a potion that’ll bring on Pete’s puberty two years early is hilarious. How the hell did that gag make its way into a film like this?
This obviously isn’t a good film, and the animation is as far from seamless as the film’s tone appears to be. However, it’s nowhere near as bad as reputed by some, and certainly not the clunker I was expecting. It’s just that the title character sucks arse, and at over two hours, it’s at least 30 minutes too long. The screenplay is based on a story by S.S. Field & Seton I. Miller (The latter of whom worked on “The Adventures of Robin Hood”, “The Sea Hawk”, and “Ministry of Fear”).