Sunday, May 24, 2020

Walt Disney, part XXIX: It's not easy to find magic in pairs


Directed by Don Chaffey
Written by Malcolm Marmorstein, Seton I. Miller, and S.S. Field

Spoiler alert: moderate

1977 was a big year for Disney animation.  Not only had the first half of the year seen the release of two full animated features (even if one was still, technically-speaking, a collection of previously-seen shorts); in November, Disney released a live-action/animation hybrid film which, I believe, represented a more involved use of that technique than anything to have come before.  They called this oddly-complected work Pete's Dragon, and it has held on as a minor piece of nostalgia for many, though I doubt that'll last: it presently operates under the pronounced handicap of being the only Disney classic to be so thoroughly outclassed by its 2010s remake that its chief point of recommendation today is that, even if it's worse in every conceivable respect, and is (speaking frankly) a bad movie, the things it does badly are at least different from the things that its 2010s remake does well.

Nonetheless, it gives us a chance to take stock of where the company was in 1977, eleven years after the death of its founder.  Disney had diversified tremendously since its creation, of course: by the 1970s, it had become a bicoastal amusements firm with a profitable sideline in live-action filmmaking, with the animation studio approaching the status of a vestigial remnant.  Though The Rescuers had, for elusive reasons, breathed new life into Disney animation, the studio was still a shell of its former self: an organization that once boasted over a thousand employees in the late 1930s had dropped into the low hundreds after the layoffs of 1959, and it had continued to bleed personnel since, with something like two dozen new hires during the entire 70s.  Meanwhile, on the other side of Disney filmmaking, Walt's son-in-law Ron Miller had long since forsaken his football and acting careers, and committed himself to the family business; he was on the cusp of taking over Walt Disney Productions (he'd ascend to the presidency in 1980), and was already the executive producer for most of the films Disney released, including The Rescuers; as for Wolfgang Reitherman, who (as I see it) had finally reintroduced some level of quality control to the animation studio in the early 70s, particularly with Robin Hood, he was on the decline.  Indeed, by 1977 the Nine Old Men in general were basically done; and, at pretty much the last possible moment, they realized that if the art form were going to continue at Disney, they'd need animators who weren't about to retire (or die), and they'd have to give way to their replacements.  This was, in part, the impulse behind Pete's Dragon (the other part was that, roughly twenty years earlier, Walt had authorized some initial development of it for TV; in the 1970s, the studio was willing to do practically anything that bore Walt's seal of approval, even if it was also Walt who turned around and canceled it later).

In any event, Pete's Dragon would wind up being the largest Disney project to bear the name of the most important member of the studio's post-Old Men generation, Don Bluth, at least in any especially important capacity.  It was, indeed, a trial run for all of the younger animators—at last, Eric Larson's retreat into an educational role, and Walt's decades-old investment in the California Institute of the Arts (which he had conceived as a potential training ground for his studio), would pay off.  Bluth himself, of course, was hardly young by this point—he was 40 years old and had worked on and off at Disney since 1957, his tenure interrupted by his Mormon missionary duties and a stint at Filmation before his return in 1971—but there was enough divide between him and the old guard to cause friction, and the actually-young Disney staff tended to look to him for leadership.  By this point, there was hardly reason not to make it official, and Bluth took the title of animation director for Pete's Dragon—though you know how this story ends, and Bluth's last credit at Disney was the following year's "The Small One," a fairly tedious semi-biblical story about (spoiler, I suppose) Joseph's donkey.  The constrained horizons of the Disney studio would prove insufficient for him, or at least that's the customary line—I tend to think the main ideological distinction between Disney and Bluth is that Bluth wanted his name on the letterhead.  But that's a discussion for another time.

As for Pete's Dragon as a whole, it was the product of that other Disney lineage, too, the live-action films begun in 1950 with Treasure Island.  The evolution of Disney's live-action filmmaking tracks its animation division remarkably closely: for, sometime in the early 1960s, it too had turned away from its foundational strengths (solid boy's-own adventure-mongering) towards a trademarked brand of Disney-style goofy amiability.  The crucial difference between Disney live-action and Disney cartoons is that, as far as I can determine, Disney live-action did "goofy amiability" much better, perhaps in part because its films very rarely insisted on themselves as anything more than disposable, and perhaps also because they had material that an adult might possibly find funny or entertaining.  Obviously, the biggest and most important of the post-1960 Disney live-action productions was 1964's Mary Poppins; but, equally obviously, Mary Poppins was going to be hard to reproduce (not that this stopped them from trying in 1971, with Bedknobs and Broomsticks), and hence most of Disney's live-action efforts would be more contemporary affairs, almost all of which seem to be proud of how little thought or seriousness went into them.

Then again, isn't that the charm of Disney's live-action films in the 60s and 70s?  They're sort of defiantly stupid, yet also oddly chipper in that defiance.  Even something as bereft of adequacy as The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes, where nearly the only good thing about it is how memorable its title is, is incapable of making you angry the way that, say, The Aristocats is.  I've developed a little bit of a taste for the things, and while Disney's live-action films during this period are only occasionally conventionally good, they have a strong tendency towards being comfortably pleasant.  They're nice things to half-watch while one works from home.

Certainly, Pete's Dragon would like you to take it as a continuation of Mary Poppins' line—I mean, it's a partly-animated musical coming-of-age period-piece comedy about a child and his magical friend, and it desperately wants your emotions to be stirred—but for all the trappings, it feels fairer to judge it by the rather lower standards of the usual fare Disney was putting out around this time.  And yet, even if one is fair, it still modestly sucks.  I'll leave it to you to decide if "being in the lower tier of Disney's live-action films in the 60s and 70s" is one of the meanest things I've ever said about a movie, but it simply doesn't stack up to the better ones: even keeping it in the same basic "magical friend" genre, it's never weird and funny like 1978's The Cat From Outer Space, or actually precious like Mary Poppins, and it certainly doesn't have the Greatest Scene In Cinema, as 1968's The Love Bug does, wherein Herbie hilariously attempts to commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.  The one thing it gets "right" about being a 60s/70s live-action Disney is that, at 128 minutes, it too is quite unjustifiably long.

So: Pete's Dragon begins with our hero, Pete (Sean Marshall), whom we find in the bayous of New England (apparently) on the night of his escape from his foster family, a pack of dreadful hillbillies called the Gogans (most saliently represented by their matriarch, played by Shelley Winters).  It doesn't look good for Pete—as the film's first song explains, once they find him, he's going to be put right back to work as a slave on their farm, and that's if they don't just kill him in a fit of pique—but something invisible saves the lad, and he overnights in a log in preparation for the long walk ahead.  It's on the road to Passamaquoddy that we find out what that invisible something was: it's a lime green dragon, Elliott (whose non-verbal grunts and groans were voiced by Charlie Callas, and, yeah, it's hard not to suspect that Steven Spielberg observed both Pete's Dragon and The Cat From Outer Space, and decided to remix them, to much stronger effect, come 1982).

Anyhow, Pete makes his way into town with his variably-visible (but still rather clumsy) friend in tow, and, after a few misadventures and another half a night of rough living, finally manages to work his way into the household of Lampie the lighthouse keeper (Mickey Rooney) and his daughter Nora (Helen Reddy).  Pete has the expected hard time integrating into the community, but the real test comes when Doctor Terminus (Jim Dale) and his assistant Hoagie (Red Buttons) come into town.  Initially keen on nothing but grifting the populace with their phony miracle cures, when Terminus discovers that there's a real dragon around here, he gets it in his head to capture the beast; and, eventually—at such a length that you're sure the movie has just forgotten about them—the Gogans make their arrival in Passamaquoddy, too, eager to reassert their ownership over poor Pete.

I've groused, but Pete's Dragon's not terrible, and could maybe even be more-or-less acceptable if it came in at a right-sized length, say around 100 minutes; the clearest reason it hits 128 instead is simply because it's a musical, jam-packed with Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn's songs, though it's probably too much to say this was a good reason for it.  Still, the best are enjoyable: the Gogans' song "The Happiest Home In These Hills" starts off wobbly, but is mean-spirited and funny, and eventually winds up with some interesting musical fillips; Doc Terminus's introductory song, "Passamaquoddy," has some non-negligible fun with how difficult it can be to remember New England placenames (though I note that "Passamaquoddy" is, in fact, a real Native American tribe); and the absolute stand-out, to my ear, is Terminus' "Every Little Piece," which isn't a terrifically memorable work of music, but is amusingly (even shockingly) violent in its lyrics, given that, after all, he is singing about how rich he'll get after hacking up the deuteragonist of a children's film and selling his parts.  Maybe this suggests that Terminus is the best thing that Pete's Dragon has going for it, and between Dale's slimy, supercilious performance and the fact he has the two best songs, I can't see much of a reason to disabuse you of that impression.

Then, well, there's everything else: Rooney's 1930s-era drunkard comedy as Lampie, and Reddy's long-suffering Nora, who, under the logic that Reddy has the prettiest voice, is required to lead the blandest songs.  The one that was nominated for an Oscar, "Candle on the Water," presumes to dramatize Nora's grief over the loss of her fiancĂ© upon the ocean a year ago, and it bears the most simple and direct staging of any musical number in the film, nothing but a slow push-in on her figure as she stands before the coruscating light of the lighthouse—a decision that might have worked better in the event that the song didn't put you to sleep, or encapsulated any noticeable emotional torment.  At least the sequence centered on Lampie, "I Saw a Dragon," while evidently written on musical theater autopilot, is an excuse for the film's big production number, with some energetic if not exactly groundbreaking choreography based around alcohol-themed props.  But it's also in, like, the first twenty minutes of the film—from here, it goes nowhere but down.

As for its numerous attempts to get you invested in Pete and Elliott—and Nora to a lesser but substantial extent—these just don't quite take, in large part because Pete is just such an unbelievably boring kid protagonist.  (Marshall himself barely seems to understand that when the make-up department puts fake tears in his eyes, he should look sad.)  Still, I suppose that on this count Pete's Dragon treads water well enough until almost the very end, whereupon it decides to undo most of the work it's done with Nora and Nora's grief in ways that feel borderline offensive.

The comedy fares somewhat better: besides Terminus, a lot of the "invisible dragon" gags are genuinely pleasurable, especially the live-action cartoon setpiece involving Elliott invisibly bursting through walls and leaving an Elliott-shaped outline behind; likewise, I appreciate the absurd register in which the Gogans are pitched, so preposterously dirty that dust literally flies off of them whenever they move.  (I guess I was also surprised that this Disney movie has overt rape threats in it, but then, what comedy from this era doesn't?  There was a somewhat-classier sexual assault gag in Love Bug already, anyway.)  Director Don Chaffey, occasional Disney contractor but also one of Ray Harryhausen's collaborators, was no doubt chosen mostly because he had experience merging unreal elements with live-action photography, which he generally does a credible job of here, though some choices don't come off as cleanly as others—like, I understand why Pete sometimes looks like he's floating in a pocket dimension when he's with Elliott, but I don't see why the bad compositing in those shots had to be mirrored in the cutaway singles with just Pete.  Still, Chaffey tries hard to keep the film's energy up, even as it's constantly leaking away, and it generally looks alright—I'm unreasonably impressed with the final image of the film, a spiraling helicopter shot that's way more ambitious than Pete's Dragon ever required.

If I'm honest, the film only totally loses me when its script starts treating its central characters like morons, and Pete's Dragon goes frustratingly back-and-forth regarding who's aware of Elliott existence and when.  This is especially true for Nora, who by the end is the only person in the whole town who does not believe that Elliott exists—which itself comes as something of a surprise, since Pete's Dragon sort of lets you assume that she'd accepted Elliott's blatantly obvious reality roughly an hour earlier.  One wonders if it's partly an artifact of when Pete's Dragon screenplay really was about an imaginary friend—one further wonders if this would've made for a more satisfying story (one is absolutely certain that it wouldn't feel like it's aggravatingly dodging questions about where Elliott came from)—but when it turns out that Nora still thinks that he's Pete's imaginary friend, 115 minutes in, it's the kind of "man, fuck this movie" moment where all you can do is sit there staring at the clumsy artificiality of a dumbassed screenplay that didn't care how it got us to the pre-arranged moment where Reddy's eyes bulge at the sight of the cartoon dragon that she's pretending to share a universe with.

Which brings us to the nominal reason we're looking at Pete's Dragon at all, the 20 or so minutes out of 128 that Elliott is onscreen.  (Elliott's invisibility has some obvious plot value, but it's hard not to interpret it as a budget-conscious cheat, too.)  First off: Pete's Dragon was always going to be an uphill struggle, because no matter how good or not-good it was, I was always going to be ill-disposed to a movie about a dragon with a dragon design this bad.  I kind of hate it—hell, I more than hate it, I resent it, because as far afield as Pete's Dragon 2016 manages to get, it's still bound to Ken Anderson's crappy design for Elliott, and ultimately can't escape it.  God, I think I like The Reluctant Dragon better—at least he was likeably teal!

As for Elliott, I don't like the day-glo greens and pinkish-purple accents; I don't like the stupid haircut (which hits me as an odd thing to even have to complain about in a dragon); I hate the tiny useless wings; I don't like Callas's noises, or the face dominated by Elliott's underbite, or the dumb self-amused expressions Elliott makes.  And this gets us into the animation qua animation—and, generally, it's pretty good, however deeply-caveated by the design.  Sometimes it's remarkably good, with Elliott existing in a presumably-deliberate uncanny valley, almost-but-not-quite feeling like he exists—there's a reflection in a real lake (with Pete's reflection next to his!) that is astonishingly well-done.  If they'd thrown some shadows upon Elliott, they'd have been 90% of the way to Roger Rabbit already (which is, in fact, where Bluth's assistant director Don Hahn would ultimately go).  Like The Rescuers, Pete's Dragon also makes game attempts at putting color back in the character outlines, and, also like The Rescuers, this doesn't work out.  However, this time it's for different reasons—the main one being that without an outline (or, rather, with the slightly-different-lime-green they use), Elliott bleeds easily into the greenery surrounding him, and he naturally doesn't have the dimensionality to pop in photographed 3-D space.  They even wind up abandoning this, though I can't tell if it was on purpose: subsequently, most of Elliott's scenes are at night, and it might just have been a way to indicate the muted lighting on the character.  I'm comfortable marking Elliott as a success for Disney's new animators, even if the praise I have to offer is mostly technical.

It's possible that with a less-lame Elliott, Pete's Dragon is even a success overall; despite being too long and too dumb, and despite having less-than-stellar musical numbers and fairly unconvincing emotions—even despite being a movie that looks and moves like this, when Star Wars was already six months old—it's still not the worst Disney slog of its decade.  It's often cute, sometimes genuinely funny, and, occasionally, actually good.  Unfortunately, it's none of these things in sufficient concentrations that I'd ever call the whole thing good.

Score: 5/10

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