|Directed by||Don Chaffey
Don Bluth (uncredited)
|Produced by||Jerome Courtland
Ron W. Miller
|Written by||Short Story Author:
|Music by||Joel Hirschhorn
|Editing by||Gordon D. Brenner|
|Distributed by||Walt Disney Pictures|
|Release date(s)||November 3, 1977|
|Running time||134 min.|
Pete's Dragon is a 1977 live-action/animated musical feature film from Walt Disney Productions and the first Disney film to be recorded in the Dolby Stereo sound system. It is a live-action film but its title character, a dragon named Elliott, is animated.
The story is about a young orphan named Pete (played by Sean Marshall) who enters a small fishing community in Maine in the early 20th century. His only friend is a dragon named Elliott (voiced by Charlie Callas and animated by Don Bluth), who also acts as his protector. Elliott can make himself invisible and is generally visible only to Pete, which occasionally lands Pete in trouble with the locals. Also featured in the film are Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney, Jim Dale, Red Buttons, Jeff Conaway and Shelley Winters. The film was directed by Don Chaffey, and the songs are by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn.
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 title. Helen 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 movie also received a nomination for Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Adaptation Score, losing to A Little Night Music.
A young dusty-haired orphan named Pete is fleeing his abusive adoptive family, the Gogans. As Lena Gogan and company pursue him ("The Happiest Home in These Hills") an unseen force, which Pete calls Elliott, distracts the Gogans. Lena, her husband Merle, and their sons Grover and Willie are determined to find Pete because, in Lena's own words, "We paid $50 for that kid, and we ain't got fifty more." The lazy, inept and constantly-bickering Willie and Grover are told by their equally-heelish parents that "If we don't get him back, you two boys are gonna have to start workin' the farm with your own two hands."
The next morning Pete and Elliott, revealed to be a green and purple animated dragon who also has the power of invisibility, share breakfast ("Boo Bop Bop Bop Bop") and decide to visit a nearby village called Passamaquoddy. Due to the clumsy antics of the unseen Elliott, Pete is labeled a source of ill luck and must flee. Lampie, the drunken old lighthouse keeper, stumbles out of a tavern and encounters Pete. A mischievous Elliott makes himself visible to him and a terrified Lampie runs into the bar to warn the townsfolk ("I Swear I Saw a Dragon"). His capable daughter Nora takes him back to their home, the local lighthouse, settles him down and puts him to bed. Meanwhile, in a seaside cave, Pete rebukes Elliott for causing trouble. Just as the two make up Nora appears, having spotted Pete earlier. She offers Pete shelter and they talk ("It's Not Easy"). Pete is inquisitive and soon learns the story of Nora's fiancé, Paul, whose ship was reported lost at sea. Pete promises to ask Elliott about Paul and Nora accepts, believing Elliott to be an imaginary friend.
The next morning, Doc Terminus, a medicine showman, and his shill Hoagie haphazardly arrive and manage to win over the gullible townspeople, who are initially angered by their return. That evening Pete visits Elliot and Nora thanks her father for pretending that the dragon exists. Lampie insists he actually saw a dragon and Nora tells him to be realistic, to which her father retorts that her hoping for Paul’s return is just as unrealistic. Lampie apologizes for his outburst and excuses himself, giving Nora time to think ("Candle on the Water"). At the tavern, Lampie tells Terminus and Hoagie about the dragon. Terminus dismisses the tale, but Hoagie agrees to go to the cave. After an encounter with Elliott (in which all three, including Elliott, become frightened) Hoagie offers the dragon some liquor as a gesture of peace, which triggers a fiery belch that chases the pair away.
The local fishermen complain about the recent scarcity of fish and believe Pete is the cause. Nora reminds them the fishing grounds shift, and that "There's Room For Everyone" in town. Nora takes Pete to school, where Pete is punished unfairly by the strict teacher as a result of Elliott's antics. An enraged Elliott smashes into the building. Doc Terminus, now convinced of Elliot's existence and having learned that dragon anatomy has many medicinal uses ("Every Little Piece"), makes Pete an offer for Elliott, which Pete refuses. Pete gladly accepts Nora and Lampie's offer to stay with them permanently ("Brazzle Dazzle Day"). The Gogans arrive in town and confront them ("Bill of Sale"), only to be firmly defied by Nora and thwarted by Elliot. Terminus makes a deal with the Gogans and convinces the superstitious locals that helping him capture the dragon will solve their problems.
That evening, a storm begins to blow. Pete tries to tell Nora the good news that Elliott has located Paul. However Nora, still believing that Pete has imagined Elliott, replies that Pete has no more need to believe in him. Even Lampie begins to doubt that he saw a dragon. Undeterred, Pete helps Nora prepare the lighthouse for the storm. Out at sea, a sailing ship is approaching Passamaquoddy, its captain assisted by Paul.
Terminus lures Pete to the town's boathouse, while Hoagie does the same to Elliott. At the boathouse, the invisible Elliott discovers Pete but is caught in an immense net. Elliott frees himself and rescues Pete from the Gogans before they can escape. He incinerates their "Bill of Sale," then douses them all with a barrel of tar before chasing them off. As Pete and Elliott celebrate, Terminus aims a harpoon gun at the distracted dragon, but the harpoon's rope is looped around his ankle and he is sent flying through the ceiling. After rebuking Terminus and Hoagie, Elliott saves the mayor and other dignitaries from a falling utility pole, revealing himself to the grateful townsfolk. Back at the lighthouse, the lamp has been extinguished by a storm-driven wave. Elliott returns and tries to light the lamp with his own fire. As he is doing so, Nora finally sees that Elliott is real. After several failures, due to the damp wick and the fact that Elliot's esophagus is squeezed it the lighhouse steps, the light is finally ignited and the ship is saved. The next morning the townsfolk praise Elliott for his help and Nora is reunited with Paul...who, it turns out, was the sole survivor of a shipwreck at Cape Hatteras. However, he suffered total amnesia due to his ordeal in the storm. Then, one day recently, his bed suddenly tipped over (courtesy of an invisible Elliot); Paul bumped his head and regained his memory.
Sadly, now that Pete is safe and has a loving family of his own, Elliott reveals that he must move on. Pete and Elliott say their goodbyes and Elliott flies off to help other children.
Al Checco, Henry Slate, and Jack Collins appear in the film as local fishermen. Robert Easton plays a store proprietor in Passamaquoddy, and Roger Price is seen as a man with a visor. Robert Foulk plays an old sea captain. Ben Wrigley is the egg man and Joe Ross plays the cement man. Dinah Anne Rogers has an uncredited role as one of the townspeople, as does Dennis Stewart, who plays a fisherman, and Debbie Fresh is also uncredited as a "Child / Dancer / Singer".
At the core of Pete's Dragon was an unpublished short story by Hollywood Golden Age writer Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field. The Disney studio acquired the rights to the story in the 1950s with the intent of using it on the Disneyland anthology program. Instead, it was given the full feature film treatment by writer Malcolm Marmorstein, in what remains his biggest undertaking to date. The production was directed by British filmmaker Don Chaffey, who had helmed two smaller films for Disney in the early 1960s in between larger fantasy adventures (Jason and the Argonauts, One Million Years B.C.) for others.
The lighthouse for Pete's Dragon was built on a point above Morro Bay, 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 operating it during filming would have confused passing ships.
The Animators of Pete's Dragon opted to make Elliott look more 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, whereby up to three scenes might be composited 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 Elliott "a little paunchy" and not always particularly graceful when it comes to flying. Don Hahn, who was assistant director to Don Bluth on this film, gained some experience working with a combination of live-action and animation before later going on to work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit.
The film was successful to some degree; in 1978, Pete's Dragon was ranked at seventeen on Variety's hit list. Thomas J. Harris, in Children’s Live-Action Musical Films: A Critical Survey and Filmography, heavily criticizes the story as well as the compositing of the animated Elliott; he also found the "Mary Poppinsish ending" to be "thoroughly unmotivated", due to the fact that Pete's life before meeting Elliott is never fleshed out. In 2006, Elliott was ranked no. 5 on a top 10 list of movie dragons by Karl Heitmueller for MTV Movie News.
Critic Leonard Maltin observed that Disney Studios made several attempts to recreate the appeal and success of Mary Poppins (1964), and that this was one of their least successful endeavors. However, he added that it might please children.
While not considered a major Disney character, Elliott has made appearances in other Disney media since Pete's Dragon. Elliott and Pete were added into the Main Street Electrical Parade soon after the film premiered. More recently, Elliott has made cameo appearances in the DVD release of Who Framed Roger Rabbit and the children's animated series House of Mouse.
An episode of the Disney-owned ABC television series Pushing Daisies, "The Legend of Merle McQuoddy," is an homage to the film. In the story, a lighthouse keeper named Nora loses her lover to a storm at sea, and continues watching for him from her lighthouse. Her son is named Elliott, her husband is named Merle and their last name is McQuoddy. In one scene, two characters seek refuge in a cave by the sea. In another, a vocal group comes to the lighthouse and sings "Candle on the Water." Lastly, the episode's narrator was Jim Dale, who starred as Doc Terminus in the film; Dale, incidentally, was the narrator for the series itself, and not just for the particular episode.
Outside of Disney, a parody of Pete's Dragon can be seen in the season 5 Family Guy episode "No Meals on Wheels", with Ben Stiller (with oversized ears as wings) taking the title role. Third wave ska band Reel Big Fish recorded a cover version of the song "It's Not Easy" for their "Duet All Night Long" split EP with Zolof the Rock & Roll Destroyer.