50 films: #9. Pete’s Dragon (Don Chaffey, 1977)

My early relationship with films is hazy. These days, any respectable child has assimilated Frozen by the age of four, having watched their DVD of it a hundred times, but we didn’t own a VCR until I was six so that wasn’t an option. We didn’t go to the cinema often. The first film I remember seeing at the Westway was Disney’s Cinderella, which bored me almost to tears.

Most of my favourite films, then, I discovered on the telly. Some of them now feel like they were always in my consciousness. Buster Keaton (Sherlock Jr., The Navigator, Our Hospitality) and Laurel and Hardy (Swiss Miss, Way Out West), surely I knew these from birth? Likewise the musicals whose soundtracks we had on tape or LP, West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Oliver! (though I don’t think I saw the film of Oliver! until I was eight or so).

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. (1924)

Some films, though, I remember distinctly watching for the first time. Whistle Down the Wind, for instance, a favourite film of my father. He noticed it was on BBC2 one Friday evening when I was six, suggested I might enjoy it, and I sat there mesmerised. I wasn’t a discriminating watcher of television at that age, and my parents were very good (though they might not have realised it) at guiding my viewing. I know it was their idea that I might like repeats of Dad’s Army and Reggie Perrin, and probably ‘Allo ‘Allo too. My love of ‘Allo ‘Allo predated our having a video recorder. I recorded one or two episodes on my cassette recorder, audio only, with other family members forbidden to speak lest their voices be picked up on the tape.

At the age of seven and a half (3 February 1991), already in the grip of self-obsession, I composed a ‘Factfile’ on myself. Following sections on ‘Birthplace and home’, ‘Language’, ‘Years of living in the house’, ‘Pronunciation’ and, naturally, ‘Aunties’, there is a list of ‘Favourite films (in order)’. I was a maker of lists even then. It reads:

1. My Fair Lady
2. Whistle Down the Wind
3. Pete’s Dragon
4. The Sound of Music
5. West Side Story

I can’t call Pete’s Dragon a favourite film these days, but I remember vividly the first time I saw it. It was on Channel 4 (as I recall) one Saturday or Sunday afternoon. I’d have been six or seven. I missed the beginning, so didn’t know the film’s title, and we didn’t have the TV Times so I couldn’t easily find out what it was. (This was in the period shortly before the deregulation of TV listings in the UK; the Radio Times published BBC listings, but for ITV or Channel 4 you had to buy a separate magazine. How did we live?) Perhaps I used Teletext to identify the film. Being a letter writer, I wrote to Channel 4 to ask them to show it again. A reply directed me to HTV. I wrote to them and was informed that they had the rights to the film until 1993 and would certainly be screening it before then. I couldn’t wait another three years, and Auntie Sue (featured in the ‘Aunties’ section) bought me the video for Christmas.

Pete and Elliott and some apples

Pete and Elliott and some apples

Let’s step back from the dull autobiographical detail and concentrate on the dull film. It’s the story of a boy, Pete (Sean Marshall), on the run from his abusive adoptive family, the Gogans (headed by Shelley Winters), in early twentieth-century Maine. He arrives in a small fishing town, Passamaquoddy, and is taken in by lighthouse-keeper Lampie (Mickey Rooney) and his daughter Nora (Helen Reddy). Pete has one friend, an animated dragon, Elliott, who possesses the power of invisibility and keeps getting them into scrapes. Nora has a fiancé, Paul, presumed lost at sea. Anyway, Elliott helps to find Paul, Pete gets a new family, and somewhere along the line everyone learns the true meaning of home.

Although it’s a film that many people, myself included, have a fondness for, one can’t overlook its shortcomings. The Gogans are obnoxious redneck sterotypes, Nora and Lampie and Pete anodyne bores, Elliott a dullard. (Is it justifiable to object to a cartoon dragon on such grounds? But why not? Remember Principal Skinner on Free Willy: ‘Justice is not a frivolous thing, Simpson. It has little if anything to do with a disobedient whale.’)

'Oh, no. Willy didn't make it. And he crushed our boy!'

‘Oh, no. Willy didn’t make it. And he crushed our boy!’

He’s not much better, but one comes to appreciate the comic diversion provided by travelling quack Doc Terminus (Jim Dale), a pervert who attempts to buy Elliott by bribing Pete with a potion that induces puberty two years prematurely (I mean, what?). His shill Hoagy is played with irritating tremulousness by Red Buttons (real name Aaron Chwatt; it’s sad that Hollywood actors felt obliged to change their names to hide their Jewish or Eastern European roots, but sometimes it was clearly a necessity).

As in real life, I never notice people’s appearance or costume in films unless they seem obviously anachronistic. Jane Kean’s anal schoolmistress at least looks the part. She’s so humourless and starchy that she might almost be a librarian. (I love her.) But Pete with his pageboy haircut and dungarees is inescapably 1970s, and Paul, who turns up five minutes from the end with an improbable story about amnesia and a bang on the head that restored the memory of his engagement to Nora, looks like he’s wandered off the set of a porn film.

'There's a dragon ... in my pants'

‘There’s a dragon … in my pants’

The songs are mostly written in a 1970s pop idiom, and are occasionally slightly sappy. One of the harder-edged lyrics: ‘Life is lollipops and raindrops with the one you love.’ Nonetheless, their saccharine sweetness was an important part of the film’s alchemy for me, and the ballet sequences within songs — the round/square dance in ‘There’s Room for Everyone’, Terminus and Hoagy’s avaricious pantomime in ‘Every Little Piece’, best of all the lighthouse-cleaning sequence from 1:39 here — are the parts where the film really catches fire.

Anyway, it’s not a forgotten masterpiece, which might explain why Disney are remaking it this year (cast to include Robert Redford). How and why, then, 25 years ago, did it affect me so profoundly? I can still feel the mixture of sweetness and sadness it evoked in me. I was an emotional wreck by the end. I couldn’t have explained how I felt to someone else, and I wouldn’t have wanted to. It was like being secretly in love.

Given that I didn’t fancy either Pete or Elliott, I surmise that it was the dynamic of their relationship that spoke to me, and the film now seems to be crying out for a queer interpretation. I have read next to no queer theory, all I know about queerness is innate and instinctual, so this will be crass and unnuanced, but that’s what you get with this blog.

At the start of the film, Pete and Elliott appear to all intents and purposes to be in love. They perform a nauseating duet in which Pete sings, not very cryptically, ‘Remember the night when you first confided … and things went so right that we both decided …’ to which Elliott, not being able to speak, replies in nonsense syllables. In the French dub Pete claims they met only a week ago. They’ve certainly not wasted any time.

But a love affair between a boy and a dragon is not something a small town like Passamaquoddy will accept. To the townspeople, Pete knows, Elliott represents the unknown, the object of fear, and so Pete persuades him to invisibilise himself.

After a sighting of Elliott creates havoc in town, Pete hides him away in a cave by the sea. ‘You did everything wrong in Passamaquoddy,’ he mopes. ‘Now everybody hates us. I don’t know whether you’re good for me … or bad.’ [Side note: I was seven or eight when I had my first crush on a boy. He was in a TV series. One night I had a dream that he and I had a secret friendship in real life, and I hid him in a cupboard to prevent other people from finding him. The symbolism of my subconscious wasn’t all that subtle, and still isn’t. Anyway, closet = cupboard = cave.]

Nora, although she doesn’t believe in Elliott until she meets him herself, appears to understand Pete’s otherness. ‘It’s clear that friends can be different,’ she sings to him. She knows it’s tough being in love when the love is impossible. Pete’s got his dragon, she’s got her missing ’70s moustache man.

At the climax of the film, doing Pete’s bidding, Elliott breathes fire to relight the lighthouse lamp, which has been extinguished in a storm. This helps Paul’s boat get back to shore, and Nora, oblivious to Elliott’s discomfort, kisses him. He’s uncomfortable because he’s shy, of course, but also because he’s gay, and so he vanishes himself once more. The lighthouse is so obviously emblematic of Pete’s phallus that I don’t need to write any more about it here.

In spite of the film’s aggressively sexual imagery, the ending is soft-centred. Elliott tells Pete that he has to go away. He’s found another boy to go out with, and Pete’s need for him has diminished now that Paul has returned. He’s part of a nuclear family. Not that Paul’s a direct replacement for Elliott, but there’s something about the moustache that tells Pete there are new adventures in store. I wonder if it’s too late to get that puberty potion, he may be thinking.

Odd, but not surprising, that the ending still moves me. It’s hard to break those childhood emotional attachments. Pete asking, ‘Did I do something wrong?’ like every boy who’s ever had his heart broken, the recapitulation of ‘It’s Not Easy’ over the farewells (I think Noel Coward wrote something about the potency of cheap music), the wistful mixture of melancholy and optimism as Pete rushes forward, sweetly calling goodbye as Elliott takes off, the sudden sunniness. It didn’t make me cry when I watched it recently, but I know it will in the future.

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