These “stuck at home” staples of my childhood are weirdly, wonderfully apt for the times we live in.
Whenever I was home from school with a cold, I could count on certain rituals. One of my grandmother’s favorites was to break out the chicken soup and a copy of Puff the Magic Dragon. At first glance, a simple story about a shy boy who goes on an adventure with a dragon to cure some “living sneezes” with soup seemed like harmless fun. Under the surface, a whole lot more was going on with Fred Wolf’s version of the folk song dragon.
Puff the Magic Dragon (1978).
Jackie Draper is a little boy who has withdrawn into himself so much that doctors believe he’ll never talk again. One day he is visited by Puff the Magic Dragon, who takes an imaginary version of Jackie on an adventure.
While trying to show Jackie that the world isn’t as scary as he imagines, the pair discover Puff’s homeland overrun with “Living Sneezes”. Now it’s Jackie’s turn to help Puff solve his problems.
As a kids show, Puff is fantastic. Fred Wolf’s animation style is soft and fluid, filled with water-color pastels. Burgess Meredith voices Puff with a warm and soothing delivery, sprinkling a hint of impish levity over his sage pronouncements. During the half hour special, we get lots of varied adventures and imagery. Of course, the music delights, featuring not only Peter, Paul, and Mary’s titular folk song but several original tunes. It all wraps up with a nice life lesson delivered with a spoonful of chicken soup.
There’s a ton of depth just under the kid-friendly surface of Puff. Think about the set-up: Jackie is so terrified of the world that he goes catatonic. His parents are in complete despair. A ray of hope arrives with Puff, but is quickly doused when the loss of his home seems to turn Puff himself catatonic with despair. The Living Sneezes discuss some really nihilistic ideas about how they’re so miserable that they only find relief in causing misery to others. To its credit, Puff deals with all of the big ideas with warmth and sincerity.
Puff the Magic Dragon in the Land of the Living Lies (1979).
Sandy tells so many lies she completely isolates herself from her friends and family. When she lies about a dragon eating her homework, she catches Puff’s attention.
To show Sandy what can happen if you forget the truth and believe in lies, he takes her on a trip through the Land of Living Lies, where she meets famous liars like Pinocchio and Baron Münchhausen. They claim she belongs with them, and Puff reveals that only the truth can get Sandy home.
The Land of the Living Lies doesn’t quite live up to the classic status of the first Puff special, but does shine its own lights. Sandy is a bit more dynamic than Jackie, both to her credit and detriment. While it lacks the fantastic musical highs of the first, it does have a really nice final song that Burgess Meredith really sinks his teeth into.
The exploration of lies is appropriate for kids but also sophisticated. Puff tackles the difference between lies and make-believe, and between the lies we tell others and the lies we tell ourselves. There are fun historical references and cultural notes – each inhabitant of the land represents a type of falsehood and the writers really pick some fantastic representations of each. While it doesn’t dig deeply into divorce, it does offer a soothing balm for children of divorced parents to help them rediscover their self-worth.
Puff and the Incredible Mr. Nobody (1982).
Terry sees the world differently from the people around him. This causes him to frustrate his teachers and draw the ridicule of other children. Alone, he dreams up Mr. Nobody, a talking duck who shares all of the same interests as Terry.
As he grows up, he begins to believe all of his talents and ideas come from Mr. Nobody, and when his parents object to his invisible friend, he loses all self-confidence. Puff arrives to take Terry to the home of imaginary beings, along the way showing him that his talents are really his own.
The third outing sees Puff running out of steam a bit. Terry’s story is much more straightforward, childish, and less fraught with culpability. There are some really nice sequences about understanding bullying and accepting differences, but this special lacks much of what made the original great. The fantasy world/metaphors are less grand and universal. The music lacks any real stand out moments. The animation has gotten a bit sloppy, though not much worse than the Land of the Living Lies.
The Incredible Mr. Nobody will probably still resonate with very young children, though it certainly is the weakest of the Puff stories. Burgess Meredith’s Puff is still great, though; Burgess Meredith was pretty dang great all the time.
Across three adventures, Puff helped children afflicted with fear, uncertainty, and sadness. In the background were thorny issues such as divorce, illness, and non-neurotypical development. It wrestled with maladaptive responses to those problems that you may recognize in lots of people dealing with today’s stress and fear: avoidance, denial, and escapism. Puff showed kids how to handle their troubles in a healthy way; maybe now he can remind us as adults how to do the same.