Mousertainment Movies: How the Original Pete’s Dragon Shaped My Worldview

“There’s room for everyone in this world – if everyone makes some room.”

With the opening this weekend of the remake/reboot of Pete’s Dragon, I thought it an apt time to look back at the original.

I’m not sure how one can fully explain something that is so intrinsically a part of oneself. A defining belief system. A personal worldview. Several things shaped me from a young age – I was always exposed to music and performances so I can’t say whether that love is nature or nurture, but probably a combination of both. However, I do know that my value system was strongly influenced by a couple of very specific moments of entertainment that I was exposed to/discovered at a young age.

The first was Star Trek, with its concept of IDIC – infinite diversity in infinite combinations. Unlike the modern politically-correct push for “more diversity” – which sadly seems to often result in tokenism/quotas and separatism rather than in bringing more people together – IDIC was about respecting differences and appreciating them and still being allowed one’s own beliefs and having those also respected by others. Basically: I may not agree with you, but I’ll defend and respect your right to believe what you do, as you do the same for me, and we can all still get along whether you’re a human, a Vulcan, a Klingon or whatever!  But it took me time to truly process the Star Trek version of this concept.

The second was one of the many brilliant animated shorts from Schoolhouse Rock – “The Great American Melting Pot” – which showed that hey, we may all come from different places and backgrounds but ultimately we are more alike than not, so let’s build this country together by utilizing those differences toward a common goal!

But finally, the one that came even simpler and easier to me to embrace was the film I saw at a young age that defined for me the concepts of true tolerance and inclusion – Pete’s Dragon.

Wait, what?

Yes, Pete’s Dragon. You may think the story is about an orphan boy finding a new home with the help of a friendly dragon, but the real messages here to take away from it are much, much bigger than that.

First, let me step back a minute and give a quick appreciation for the film overall.

While it certainly is a Disney film (yes: orphan, funny sidekick, new family to love), in many respects for me, its roots are far more in the colorful 1960’s and 70’s musicals such as its best companion film in my opinion: Oliver. Or Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. It also shares some of the charms of the 1970’s television series from the Kroffts, H.R. Pufnstuf.

The cast is really extraordinary. First, you have three powerhouse master comedians in Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons and Jim Backus – all still at the top of their craft level. The scene where Rooney and Buttons are playing drunk together is still hilarious to watch these two competing yet complimentary performances by two skilled actors.

There’s Jim Dale bringing all his theatrical skills to huckster Dr. Terminus as he would onstage for fellow showman P.T. Barnum. Although modern audiences may know him best as the narrator for the Harry Potter audiobooks! His voice is still as silky smooth as ever.

Add in Shelley Winters and Jeff Conaway – both of whom terrified me as a child in these roles – even though Conaway’s following performance as Kenickie in Grease turned him from an abusive hillbilly here to a cocky high school bad boy there and many years later into the beloved character Zack in Babylon 5.

Newcomer Sean Marshall brought a sweet innocence and delightful singing voice to the role of Pete.

And finally there is Helen Reddy – a singer, not an actress, yet who still conveyed such strength and conviction in her performance as Nora. Not to mention some pretty impressive dancing skills as she pranced across rolling beer barrels!

Add in the voice talent of Charlie Callas to the beautifully hand-drawn and huggable animated Elliott the dragon and you have a perfect sidekick character to the protagonist Pete. (I’ll write some more tomorrow about the importance of sidekick characters!)

I can’t discuss the tremendous quality of this film without giving huge love to the simply fantastic soundtrack that I memorized at a very young age with its range of songs from the iconic and heart-wrenchingly poignant “Candle on the Water” to the playfulness of “Passamaquoddy” and “Boo Bop Bop Bop Bop (I Love You, Too)” to the charm and joy of “It’s Not Easy” and “Brazzle Dazzle Day” to what to me is a defining message of this film: “There’s Room for Everyone”.

Yes, it’s this song that resonated so strongly with me that it really is part of my core belief system.

The idea that people can be different, but that we can all still get along by accepting each other’s differences and giving space to them is one that still means so much to me to this day.

The theme is also repeated in “It’s Not Easy” with its note that, “It’s clear that friends can be different…”

That message and lesson learned at such a young age is part of what makes me so deeply frustrated and sad at the current state of the world where people feel that they have to force their beliefs on others as if there is only one right answer. Hint: there’s not. It’s okay to be different and believe differently so long as we all live and let live.

“So let’s all make sure we give EVERYONE somewhere to stand – just the way God planned it…”

The other powerful theme for me in this film was that of faith prevailing despite what we see or people assume. This is shown in Nora’s faith in Paul and Pete as well as Pete’s faith in Elliott and Nora.

Sometimes, we just need a little faith in something beyond what we currently see – even if that something is a magical friend… or a happily ever after.

All of which will hopefully serve to explain why I’ve no interest in nor plans to see the eco-tale-meets-Jungle Book CGI movie released in theaters this weekend. The original is too precious to me to be tainted by any other iteration.

Are you a fan of the original Pete’s Dragon? Do you plan on seeing the new version?

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