Based on the 1963 Peter, Paul and Mary song (originally written by Leonard Lipton and Peter Yarrow), 1978's made-for-TV animated adaptation of Puff the Magic Dragon was penned by Romeo Muller, who also wrote the teleplays for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman, The Hobbit, The Wind in the Willows, and about three dozen other animated specials. Even if you're not familiar with this 1978 adaptation, you've probably heard the original song: it's a not-too-subtle reminder that most people outgrow their childhood, and has probably been responsible for 10% of total Kleenex sales during the past several decades. And for the thousandth time, it's not about drugs.
Muller's teleplay quickly introduces us to young Jackie Draper, a boy who fears growing up and has not spoken to his parents (or anyone else) for quite some time. Soon enough, the titular dragon appears at his window and, using a makeshift cut-out of the boy powered by his happiness, creates "Jackie Paper" to take along on a sailing trip to his magical kingdom of Honalee. On their long and frightening journey, Jackie's confidence is built by solving problems for strange creatures along the way...but when they reach Honalee, it's been taken over by Living Sneezes and Puff sends Jackie away. Unlike the song, however, Puff isn't left alone in his cave: Jackie returns to help the dragon save his kingdom, and he in turn comes out of his shell in real life. Featuring a generous supply of colorful characters, narrative music cues by Peter Yarrow (sans Paul and Mary) and original lyricist Leonard Lipton, it's an imaginative, touching, and enjoyable slice of animation that's aged surprisingly well during the last 37 years.
The 1978 special was popular enough to earn two sequels: Puff the Magic Dragon in the Land of Living Lies (1979) and Puff and the Incredible Mr. Nobody (1982); like the original, they're written by Romeo Muller and feature Burgess Meredith as the dragon's voice. In Land of Living Lies, Puff helps a young girl named Sandy deal with dishonesty, reminding her of the differences between childhood fantasy and lies that can hurt both herself and others. Featuring appearances by The Boy Who Cried Wolf, Baron Munchausen, and other famous fibbers, it's also held up well over the years. In Mr. Nobody, Puff works with a boy named Terry to overcome the need for his imaginary friend, an affable duck who wears a saucepan hat. Once Terry realizes that he and "Mr. Nobody" are essentially the same person, he attempts to solve problems on his own. Like the other two, it maintains a terrific balance of kid-friendly entertainment and important lessons about problem solving, using your imagination and and believing in yourself.
I'll be honest: I probably haven't seen any of these in at least 30 years, and the one that brought back the most immediate memories was Mr. Nobody. But even without the strong gauze of nostalgia, I had no problem enjoying these three specials for what they really are: honest, well-meaning moral tales that can still be enjoyed by school-aged kids (4-5+) and their parents. There's some dark imagery here and there but it's handled with care, while the pleasing song breaks and colorful, era-specific animation remains charming without feeling too dated. These three 25-minute animated specials were first released on a public domain DVD back in 2006, but it's gone long out-of-print and is only available through third-party sellers. Luckily, CBS' new "Triple Feature" DVD makes it easy to revisit these three specials, even though the A/V presentation still looks a little rough and no extras have been included.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in their original aspect ratios, these 1.33:1 transfers look reasonably good compared to other TV specials of the era. But don't set your hopes too high: they're closer in quality to those Garfield specials than the beautifully remastered Peanuts collections, although I'd imagine the source material for these three shorts was in less than pristine condition. While I don't have the original and out-of-print Puff DVD for direct comparison, the 1978 special doesn't look to have been remastered in any way: dirt and debris can be spotted on occasion, the stylized color palette is a little dull, image detail runs on the soft side, and there's noticeable interlacing from start to finish. The same goes for Land of the Living Lies and Mr. Nobody: they look brighter, more defined, and evenly saturated, though they have a slightly processed appearance and interlacing continues to be a problem. Overall, I doubt that die-hard fans will mind some of these continued shortcomings, but there's definitely room for improvement here.
DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are strictly decorative and do not represent this DVD's native 480p resolution.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtracks are exactly like you'd expect: dialogue is reasonably crisp and clear, while the music cues and other song breaks are balanced nicely without fighting for attention. I did notice a small glitch or two during "commercial break" fade-outs; either the audio would cut off abruptly or become mildly distorted for a split second. I'd imagine these are source material issues, but they're completely understandable and not very distracting overall. Optional English SDH subtitles have also been included for all three specials, which is nice.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
Seen above, the basic interface is about as simple as they come and includes cover-themed artwork, a handy "Play All" option, and a sub-menu for the optional subtitles. The one-disc release is housed in a silly eco-friendly keepcase; no insert is included, but the back cover tells you all you need to know. Sadly, there are no bonus features.
CBS' new "Triple Feature" of Puff the Magic Dragon specials (1978-1982) aims to replace the out-of-print 2006 public domain DVD...and the jury's still out on which release is actually better. This barebones disc serves up reasonably good A/V quality overall but there's room for improvement; in fact, it's biggest strengths are a rock-bottom retail price and the fact that it's easily available. Either way, the staying power of these shorts is the real selling point of collections like this...so if you don't own Puff on DVD yet, CBS' "Triple Feature" comes firmly Recommended.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night. He also does freelance design work, teaches art classes and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs and writing in third person.