It’s interesting going back and watching movies you first watched as a child as an adult. Of course, it’s one thing if you’re talking about a “Star Wars” or “E.T.” or “The Goonies” that you’ve continued to watch over the years, but I believe it’s been about 30 years since I last watched Disney’s live-action/animated hybrid fantasy about a young boy who turns a fishing village upside down with his magical dragon, Elliot. There’s a lot of the DNA that later made up “E.T.” in this film, but it’s also very much a Disney film through and though. With their full animation house faltering at the time, they turned to live-action, and it’s fascination to watch the films they were coming out with during those years. With Disney doing an update of this film this year, it felt like the time was right to revisit Don Chaffey’s musical fantasy.
The film feels like it should be an adaptation of a children’s novel, but indeed, the script by Malcolm Marmorstein is based on a story by Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field that starts by introducing Pete (Sean Marshall) and his dragon, Elliot (vocalized by Charlie Callas), who is invisible at the time. The smart alec adult in me couldn’t help but think during these opening credits, “Ahh, the era of Disney where a boy seeing an animated dragon was an endearing fable rather than a sign of intense drug use…or schizophrenia,” and believe me, the fact that I’ve found myself caught up in Pokemon Go recently is not lost on me. The truth is, though, this is an era of Disney’s history that verges into downright trippiness. (The Eisner years never would have produced something like this once “The Little Mermaid” hit.) That the film is also a musical only adds to that ’70s risk-taking vibe, but the truth is, the film works, and it’s because of the story. You see, Pete is an orphan who has been adopted by a skeevy and abusive family lead by Lena Gogan (Shelley Winters), and he’s running away from them. Elliot, invisible, helps him get away from the clan, and they find their way to the town of Passamaquoddy, a fishing village. But Elliot, unseen, gets them exiled out of town with his destructive nature, and it’s only through the caring nature of Nora (Helen Reddy) that Pete is helped to assimilate into life in the town. Pete talks openly about Elliot, and for most people like Nora, it’s the talk of a lonely boy with an imaginary friend, but her father, Lampie (Mickey Rooney), actually has seen it, and his ravings about it are taken seriously by some in town, such as a local snake oil salesman, Doc Terminus (Jim Dale), who has ridden into town with his shill man, Hoagie (Red Buttons). To Terminus, a dragon could bring the money in for years, but he may have to deal with the Gogan clan to get him and Pete separated. Meanwhile, Pete is taken in like family by the lonely Nora, whose husband, Paul, was lost at sea a while ago.
The image of the animated Elliot in the live-action world of Pete is what has stayed with me over the decades about the film, but what sticks with me when watching the film as an adult, apart from the musical numbers (which are wonderful), is the story, and how subtly resonant it is. Like “E.T.,” this is a story about a boy who feels alone in the world, and he has a friend others can’t really see or understand who can help him through a difficult time in his life. In this case, though, Elliot’s effect is long-reaching, and even includes bringing Nora a sense of family and completeness she lost when Paul was lost. The sub-plot with Doc Terminus that seems to take over the story in the second hour feels tacked on for dramatic tension while we continue to follow Pete as he is accepted by the town, and the nature of his relationship with Elliot, and why he is around, is made clear. That last part makes the final scene between the two as affecting as anything Disney has ever put out over the years. Admittedly, the previews to the new version of this film haven’t really grabbed. Watching the original, though, I can’t help but be excited by what it has in store.