Pete's Dragon (1977 film)
Pete's Dragon is a 1977 American live-action/animated musical fantasy comedy film directed by Don Chaffey, produced by Jerome Courtland and Ron Miller, and written by Malcolm Marmorstein. It is based on an unpublished short story of the same name, written by Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field. It stars Sean Marshall, Helen Reddy, Jim Dale, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Jeff Conaway, Shelley Winters, and the voice of Charlie Callas. It revolves around an orphaned boy raised by an abusive hillbilly family who is friends with a dragon named Elliott.
Original theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Don Chaffey|
|Screenplay by||Malcolm Marmorstein|
|Music by||Irwin Kostal|
|Edited by||Gordon D. Brenner|
|Distributed by||Buena Vista Distribution|
|Box office||$36–39.6 million|
In 1957, the project was initially conceived as a two-part episode for the Disneyland television series, but it was shelved. It was later revived as a musical film in 1975. The film was released on November 3, 1977 to mixed reviews from critics though some praised the animation. The film was a moderate success, grossing $18 million over a $10 million budget. The song "Candle on the Water" received an Academy Award nomination, but lost to "You Light Up My Life" from the film of the same name. Reddy's recording (with a different arrangement than the one her character sings in the film) was released as a single by Capitol Records, reaching #27 on the Adult Contemporary charts. The film also received a nomination for Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Adaptation Score, losing to A Little Night Music.
In the early 1900s, Pete flees the Gogans, his abusive hillbilly foster family, with help from Elliott, a green fire-breathing dragon who can make himself invisible.
Pete and Elliott visit Passamaquoddy, where the unseen Elliott's clumsiness causes Pete to be labeled a source of bad luck.
Lampie, the lighthouse keeper, stumbles out of a tavern and encounters Pete. Elliott makes himself visible and a terrified Lampie runs into the saloon to warn the townsfolk. In a seaside cave, Pete scolds Elliott for causing trouble. Just as they make up, Lampie's daughter, Nora, appears saying due to the ongoing tides from the sea, it is unsafe for Pete to stay in there, then offers him food and shelter at the lighthouse, which he accepts.
Pete tells Nora of the abuse he suffered at the hands of the Gogans, and as she offers to let him spend the night at the lighthouse, they strike up a friendship. He learns the story of her fiancé, Paul, whose ship was reported lost at sea the year before. He promises to ask Elliott about Paul, and she accepts, believing Elliott to be his imaginary friend.
The next morning, Dr. Terminus and his assistant, Hoagy, arrive and win over the gullible townspeople who are initially angered by their return. The day after, the local fishermen complain about the scarcity of fish and believe Pete is the cause. Nora tells them that the fishing grounds shift from time to time and Pete should be welcomed into town. She takes him to start school, where he is punished unfairly by the teacher, Miss Taylor, as a result of Elliott's antics. An enraged Elliott smashes into the schoolhouse, leaving his shape in the wall, as Pete runs off.
Dr. Terminus makes Pete an offer for Elliott, which he turns down. Believing he needs to stop running from the Gogans, Nora and Lampie offer to let him live with them permanently, which he accepts. When the Gogans arrive in town and demand him back, Nora refuses to hand him over. As the Gogans attempt to chase them in a small boat, Elliott "torpedoes" it, saving Pete.
Dr. Terminus teams up with the Gogans to capture both Pete and Elliott. He also convinces the superstitious locals that helping him capture Elliott will solve their problems. That evening, a storm begins to blow.
At sea, a ship is approaching Passamaquoddy with Paul on board. Dr. Terminus lures Pete to the boathouse, while Hoagy does the same to Elliott. Once there, the invisible Elliott is caught in a net trap, but he frees himself, saves Pete, and confronts the Gogans. Lena yells at him, claiming Pete is their property and waves her bill of sale at him, which he torches. Now completely defenseless, they flee after he frightens them away. Just as he and Pete laugh, Dr. Terminus makes one more effort to harpoon him, but his leg is caught in the rope and he is sent catapulting through the ceiling and screams as he goes through it, ending up dangling upside down near a utility pole. In a last-ditch effort, he tries to offer buying Elliott's "spare parts", to which he declines and proceeds to destroy Dr. Terminus' traveling wagon, ending his scamming business.
Elliott then saves the Mayor, Miss Taylor, and the members of the Town Board from a falling utility pole, revealing himself to them. Back at the lighthouse, the lamp has been extinguished by a storm-driven rogue wave. Elliott returns and tries to light it with his own fire. As he does so, Nora sees that he is real. The light is ignited and the ship is saved.
The next morning, the Mayor and the townsfolk praise Elliott for his help, and Nora is reunited with Paul, who was the sole survivor of a shipwreck at Cape Hatteras and suffered amnesia. Now that Pete has a loving family, Elliott tells him he must move on to help another kid in trouble, and is sad that they must part. Pete comforts Elliott by telling him if that anyone can help that kid, he can. He flies away as Pete and his new family wave good-bye to him. The film ends with Pete reminding him once again he is supposed to be invisible.
- Sean Marshall as Pete, an orphan boy whom the Gogans have purchased and treat like a slave.
- Helen Reddy as Nora, Lampie's headstrong but kind daughter who later adopts Pete.
- Jim Dale as Dr. Terminus, a scheming quack and showman.
- Mickey Rooney as Lampie, Passamaquoddy's lighthouse keeper and Nora's father.
- Red Buttons as Hoagy, Dr. Terminus' assistant.
- Shelley Winters as Lena Gogan, the matriarch of the Gogan family.
- Jane Kean as Miss Taylor, Passamaquoddy's schoolteacher who reluctantly takes Pete as a student at Nora's suggestion.
- Jim Backus as the Mayor of Passamaquoddy.
- Charles Tyner as Merle Gogan, Lena's husband and the patriarch of the Gogan family.
- Gary Morgan and Jeff Conaway as Grover and Willie Gogan, Lena and Merle's sons.
- Cal Bartlett as Paul, a sailor who has disappeared at sea and Nora's fiancé.
- Charlie Callas as the voice of Elliott, a dragon that saves Pete from the Gogans.
- Walter Barnes as the Captain of the ship on which Paul returns home.
Al Checco, Henry Slate, and Jack Collins appear in the film as local fishermen. Robert Easton plays a store proprietor, and Roger Price is seen as a man with a visor. Robert Foulk plays an old sea captain. Ben Wrigley is the egg vendor that Elliott accidentally knocks into the Mayor and Joe Ross plays the cement man whose cement was stepped in by Elliott. Dinah Anne Rogers has an uncredited role as one of the townsfolk, as does Dennis Stewart, who plays a fisherman, and Debbie Fresh is also uncredited as a "Child/Dancer/Singer".
- "The Happiest Home In These Hills" – Lena, Merle, Grover, Willie
- "Boo Bop Bop Bop Bop (I Love You, Too)" – Pete, Elliott
- "I Saw A Dragon" – Lampie, Nora, Townsmen
- "It's Not Easy" – Nora, Pete
- "Passamaquoddy" – Dr. Terminus, Hoagy, Townsfolk
- "Candle On The Water" – Nora
- "There's Room For Everyone" – Nora, Pete, Children
- "Every Little Piece" – Hoagy, Dr. Terminus
- "Brazzle Dazzle Day" – Nora, Lampie, Pete
- "Bill Of Sale" – Nora, Lena, Merle, Grover, Willie
- "I Saw A Dragon (Reprise)" – Townsmen
- "Brazzle Dazzle Day (Reprise)" – Pete, Nora, Lampie, Paul
In December 1957, Walt Disney Productions optioned the film rights to the short story titled Pete's Dragon and the U.S.A. (Forever After) that was written by Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field, in which Miller was hired to write the script. Impressed with his performance in Old Yeller, Walt Disney had child actor Kevin Corcoran in mind to star in the project as a feature-length film. However, Disney considered the project to be more appropriate for his Disneyland anthology program, by which it was slated to be filmed as a two-part episode in the following year. In February 1958, Variety reported that filming was scheduled to begin in October. By the following spring, veteran screenwriter Noel Langley had completed his draft of the script. However, Disney was still unsure of how to approach the project, and the project was placed in turnaround.
In 1968, writers Bill Raynor and Myles Wilder were hired to write the script, and completed their outline in October. They submitted their outline to the studio for review, but the project continued to languish in development. In 1975, producer Jerome Courtland re-discovered the project and hired writer Malcolm Marmorstein to write the script. For his script, Marmorstein revised the story from being in contemporary time into a period setting, and had the dragon changed from being wholly imaginary into a real one. In earlier drafts, Elliott was mostly invisible aside from one animated sequence, in which Dr. Terminus would chop up the dragon for his get-rich scheme. However, veteran Disney artist Ken Anderson felt the audience would "lose patience" with the idea and lobbied for Elliott to be seen more in his visible form during the film. In retrospect, Marmorstein conceded that "We tried a completely invisible dragon, but it was no fun. It was lacking. It's a visual medium, and you're making a film for kids." He also named the dragon "Elliott" after actor Elliott Gould (who was a friend from his theater days), and named the town "Passamaquoddy" after the real Native American tribe in Maine.
In October 1975, the songwriting duo of Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn were assigned to compose the musical score. The production was directed by British filmmaker Don Chaffey, who had made two smaller films for Disney in the early 1960s between directing larger fantasy adventures (Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years B.C.) for others.
The lighthouse for the film was built on Point Buchon Trail located south of Los Osos, California, substituting for Maine. It was equipped with such a large beacon that Disney had to get special permission from the Coast Guard to operate it, since doing so during filming would have confused passing ships. Pacific Gas and Electric opened the Point Buchon Trail and allows hikers access to where filming took place ( ).
The animators of the film opted to make Elliott look more like an oriental, rather than occidental, dragon because oriental dragons are usually associated with good. The film is the first involving animation in which none of the Nine Old Men – Disney's original team of animators – were involved. One technique used in the movie involved compositing with a yellowscreen that was originally used in Mary Poppins and similar to today's greenscreen compositing, whereby up to three scenes might be overlaid together – for example, a live foreground, a live background, and an animated middle ground containing Elliott. Ken Anderson, who created Elliott, explained that he thought it would be appropriate to make him "a little paunchy" and not always particularly graceful when it comes to flying. Don Hahn, who was an assistant director to Don Bluth on Pete's Dragon, gained some experience working with a combination of live-action and animation before later going on to work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
Pete's Dragon premiered on November 3, 1977 at the Radio City Music Hall for its intended roadshow theatrical release, in which the film ran 134 minutes. For its general release, it was edited down to 121 minutes. It was later re-released on March 9, 1984 where it was shortened from 121 minutes to 104 minutes.
The film was released on VHS in early 1980. It was re-released on VHS on October 28, 1994 as a part of Masterpiece Collection. It was originally slated to be released in the Walt Disney Gold Classic Collection line-up on December 5, 2000, but it was pushed back to January 16, 2001. The DVD includes bonus features such as two animated shorts Lighthouse Keeping and Man, Monsters and Mysteries, two vintage excerpts from the Disney Family Album episode on Ken Anderson and "The Plausible Impossible" from Disneyland, and both theatrical trailers for the film.
The film was re-released in a "High-Flying Edition" DVD on August 18, 2009. The DVD includes a half-hour documentary feature, a deleted storyboard sequence, original demo recordings of the songs, and several bonus features transferred from the Gold Classic Collection release. It was released on the 35th-anniversary edition Blu-ray on October 16, 2012.
Janet Maslin of The New York Times praised the film declaring it "the most energetic and enjoyable Disney movie in a long while." She was also complimentary of Helen Reddy's performance noting "Sean Marshall doesn't sing well, but Helen Reddy does, so she often accompanies his vocals. Miss Reddy is serviceable but undistinguished as an actress—she has a tendency to behave as if she were a very bright light bulb in a very small lamp—but she so often finds herself in the company of Messrs. Rooney, Dale or Buttons that her scenes work well." However, she was critical of the film's length and the excessive alcohol consumption. Variety wrote the film was "an enchanting and humane fable which introduces a most lovable animal star (albeit an animated one)." They praised the combination of live-action and animation as "never before more effectively realized" and commented that the film suffered "whenever Elliott is off screen." John Skow of Time wrote the film was "likeable fantasy", but dismissed the musical numbers as "a good opportunity to line up for more popcorn." Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote, "At 2 hours 7 minutes it is a trying span for small sitters. The animated excitements keep stopping for songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, but they are not showstoppers in the grand sense. Bland, perfunctory and too numerous is more like it." Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two stars out of four and wrote that "we get the same tired Disney formula: a gooey-faced kid in a phony sound-stage world populated by old actors required to perform ancient vaudeville routines ... Compared to the great Disney animation classics, 'Pete's Dragon' is just TV fare on the wide screen." Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote that the film "was apparently meant to be a big, rousing musical comedy-fantasy, but it's staged and photographed without musical-comedy energy, flair or coordination ... Perhaps children can be counted on to enjoy Elliott's mugging and the slapstick interludes that occasionally interrupt the tedium, but parents will see this one more as a chore."
Critic Leonard Maltin observed that Disney made several attempts to recreate the appeal and success of Mary Poppins (1964), and that Pete's Dragon did not come close on that score. However, he added that it might please children, and that "the animated title character is so endearing that it almost compensates for the live actors' tiresome mugging." Thomas J. Harris, in his book Children’s Live-Action Musical Films: A Critical Survey and Filmography, heavily criticized the story as well as the compositing of the animated Elliott; he also found the "Mary Poppinsish ending" to be "thoroughly unmotivated", because Pete's life before meeting Elliott is never fleshed out. In 2006, Elliott was ranked fifth on a top 10 list of movie dragons by Karl Heitmueller for MTV Movie News.
On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 50% based on 24 reviews, with an average rating of 4.8/10. The site's consensus states: "Boring and slow, this is a lesser Disney work, though the animation isn't without its charms."
During its initial release, the film grossed $18 million in domestic grosses, which was ranked at seventeen on Variety's hit list. However, the returns were considered disappointing for Disney who were hoping for a Mary Poppins-sized blockbuster. The film has a lifetime domestic gross ranging from $36 to 39.6 million.
Awards and honorsEdit
- Academy Award for Best Original Song – Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn for "Candle on the Water"
- Academy Award for Original Song Score – Al Kasha, Joel Hirschhorn and Irwin Kostal
Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films AwardsEdit
- Saturn Award for Best Fantasy Film
- Saturn Award for Best Supporting Actor – Red Buttons
- Saturn Award for Best Costume
- Saturn Award for Best Special Effects
- Golden Globe Award for Best Original Score – Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn
In March 2013, Disney announced a remake of the film, written by David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks, the director/writer and co-producer (respectively) of the Sundance hit Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013). It re-imagines a venerable Disney family and is presented as a straightforward drama as opposed to a musical. It is a live-action remake instead of an animated remake by Disney. Principal photography commenced in January 2015 in New Zealand, with Lowery directing. It was released on August 12, 2016.
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