Disney100: Pete's Dragon (1977)
Is it? Is it a brazzle dazzle day?
The Walt Disney Company is very good at a number of things, but perhaps top of the list is its ability to self-mythologize. On the face of it, as the company can truly celebrate its centenary today — because 100 years ago on October 16, Walt and Roy Disney went into business as the Disney Brothers Studio — their crown jewel, the animation studio, is full of hit after hit. Think of some of those smash-hit successes in your head right now. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio, Sleeping Beauty, Fantasia, Lady and the Tramp, and on and on the list goes.
Except, of course, if you know your historical context, you know that at least a few of the titles I just name-checked were not successes out of the gate. It was only because of Disney’s need in the late 1940s and early 1950s for easy money translating into re-releasing some of its animated features that more and more kids were introduced to stories that had not been initially massive at the box office. And once the Disney theme parks opened, starting with Disneyland in 1955, that was merely one more place that the studio could use to remind audiences about its films, whether or not they were actually successful. (The aforementioned Sleeping Beauty is a good example of this, because Disneyland Park’s central icon was Sleeping Beauty Castle, which even had a walkthrough exhibit that opened literally two years before the film premiered.)
Though the studio’s successes are much more notable now, with the same being true for its financial failures, they can still self-mythologize. For instance: The Princess and the Frog. I love The Princess and the Frog, and am very happy that the 2009 film is now becoming theme-park fodder, with a film-themed restaurant and the eventual reskin of what was once Splash Mountain into a big mix of dark ride and log flume celebrating this modern classic. But I’m also aware that the film was lucky to make more than $100 million domestically; that Disney no longer re-releases its animated films with regularity means that’s basically all the film will ever make theatrically. I’m glad that a new generation can embrace Tiana’s story, even though the delayed use of the character — we’re almost 15 years removed from the film’s release — makes it all the stranger.
But as we celebrate Disney’s 100th anniversary, I guess it makes sense that the studio and its theme parks don’t always sync up. I mean, think about another theme-park icon: the Main Street Electrical Parade. It’s a quintessential live-entertainment experience that just keeps coming back at both Disneyland and Walt Disney World. And one of its most recognizable visual icons, of a big, friendly dragon blowing puffs of smoke at audiences every night, is from a film that was a middling box-office release at best, and was a creatively painful thing to sit through. Oh, Pete’s Dragon. What better way to celebrate 100 years of Disney than with this ungainly film?