Pete's Dragon (1977 film)
|Directed by||Don Chaffey|
|Screenplay by||Malcolm Marmorstein|
|Edited by||Gordon D. Brenner|
|Music by||Irwin Kostal|
|Distributed by||Buena Vista Distribution|
|Box office||$36–39.6 million|
Pete's Dragon is a 1977 American live-action/animated musical fantasy film directed by Don Chaffey, produced by Jerome Courtland and Ron Miller, and written by Malcolm Marmorstein. Based on the unpublished short story "Pete's Dragon and the USA (Forever After)" by Seton I. Miller and S. S. Field, the film stars Sean Marshall, Helen Reddy, Jim Dale, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Jeff Conaway, Shelley Winters, and the voice of Charlie Callas as Elliott.
The project was initially conceived in 1957 as a two-part episode of the Disneyland television series, but it was shelved until it was 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. It was a moderate financial success, grossing $18 million over a $10 million budget.
The film received two nominations at the 50th Academy Awards, for musical scoring and original song. Capitol Records released a single of Reddy performing "Candle on the Water" (with a different arrangement from that in the film) that reached #27 on the Adult Contemporary charts.
In New England in the early 1900s, an orphan slave named Pete rides his invisible dragon Elliott in the woods, fleeing from the Gogans, an abusive family that purchased Pete to work their farm. The family sings about how they'll treat him better if he returns, while contrastingly expressing their true intentions to punish him severely ("The Happiest Home in These Hills"). Elliott swings his tail, knocking the Gogans into the mud. After they leave, Pete falls asleep in a log.
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 Lampie, terrified, runs to the townsfolk ("I Saw a Dragon"). Naturally, they shake this off as another drunken rant, when his daughter, Nora, arrives. Afterwards, she leads him back to the lighthouse and puts him to bed. In a seaside cave Pete scolds Elliott for causing trouble. As they make up, Lampie's daughter Nora appears, warning that Pete isn't safe staying in there because of the ongoing tides from the sea. When she realizes he's orphaned and not from the area, she offers him food and shelter at the lighthouse and he accepts.
Pete tells Nora of the abuse he suffered from the Gogans, and as she offers to let him spend the night at the lighthouse, they strike up a friendship (“It’s Not Easy”). 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. She believes that Elliott is Pete's imaginary friend.
The next morning, itinerant quack Dr. Terminus and his assistant Hoagy arrive and win over the gullible townspeople, who were initially angered by their return (“Passamaquoddy”). Lampie and Hoagy go to prove whether or not Elliot is real, but despite interacting with him for some time, they still cannot get anyone to believe he exists. The next day the local fishermen complain about the scarcity of fish and believe it's Pete's fault. Nora tells them the fishing grounds shift from time to time and Pete should be welcomed into town. She takes him to start school, where the teacher, Miss Taylor, punishes him unfairly for Elliott's antics. An enraged Elliott smashes into the schoolhouse, leaving his shape in the wall, as Pete runs off. Pete turns down Dr. Terminus' offer for Elliott but accepts Nora and Lampie's invitation to live with them permanently. When the Gogans come to town to 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 ("Bill of Sale"). 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 blows in. At sea, a ship approaches 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. 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 offers to buy Elliott's "spare parts"; Elliott 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 lights it with his own fire. As he does, 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 child in trouble, and is sad that they must part. Pete comforts Elliott by telling him if that anyone can help that kid, he can. Elliott then happily flies away as Pete and his new family wave good-bye to him. Pete happily reminding him once again he is supposed to be invisible.
- Sean Marshall as Pete, an orphan boy escaping the cruel Gogans.
- Helen Reddy as Nora, the kind daughter to the local lighthouse keeper.
- Mickey Rooney as Lampie, Passamaquoddy's alcoholic lighthouse keeper and Nora's father.
- Jim Dale as Dr. Terminus, a scheming quack and showman.
- Red Buttons as Hoagy, the alcoholic assistant to Dr. Terminus.
- Shelley Winters as Lena Gogan, the matriarch of the Gogan family.
- Jane Kean as Miss Romy Taylor, Passamaquoddy's strict, no-nonsense, and abusive schoolteacher.
- Jim Backus as Mayor of Passamaquoddy.
- Charles Tyner as Merle Gogan, the patriarch of the Gogan family.
- Gary Morgan and Jeff Conaway as Grover and Willie Gogan, Merle and Lena's sadistic sons.
- Cal Bartlett as Paul, a sailor who disappeared at sea, Nora's fiancé.
- Walter Barnes as Captain of the ship on which Paul returns home.
- Charlie Callas as the vocal effects for Elliott, a dragon who befriends Pete.
|1.||"The Happiest Home in These Hills"||Shelley Winters, Charles Tyner, Gary Morgan & Jeff Conaway|
|2.||"Boo Bop Bop Bop Bop (I Love You, Too)"||Sean Marshall & Charlie Callas|
|3.||"I Saw a Dragon"||Mickey Rooney, Helen Reddy & Chorus|
|4.||"It's Not Easy"||Helen Reddy & Sean Marshall|
|5.||"Passamaquoddy"||Jim Dale, Red Buttons & Chorus|
|6.||"Candle on the Water"||Helen Reddy|
|7.||"There's Room for Everyone"||Helen Reddy, Sean Marshall & Chorus|
|8.||"Every Little Piece"||Jim Dale & Red Buttons|
|9.||"Brazzle Dazzle Day"||Helen Reddy, Sean Marshall & Mickey Rooney|
|10.||"Bill of Sale"||Shelley Winters, Charles Tyner, Gary Morgan, Jeff Conaway & Helen Reddy|
|11.||"I Saw a Dragon (Reprise)"||Chorus|
|12.||"Brazzle Dazzle Day (Reprise)"||Helen Reddy, Sean Marshall, Mickey Rooney & Cal Bartlett|
In December 1957, Walt Disney Productions optioned the film rights to the short story "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 in Montana De Oro State Park 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 film's animators 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 at 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, shortened from 121 minutes to 104 minutes. The film's movie poster was painted by artist Paul Wenzel.
A soundtrack recording (Disneyland 3138) was released that told much of the story and added a narrator, but unlike many other Disney book and records, used the actual dialogue recorded for the film, which the book presented in script format. The inclusion of story led to the omission of several songs, including "The Happiest Home in These Hills," "There's Room for Everyone," and "Bill of Sale," while "Brazzle Dazzle Day" is included only in instrumental.
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.
Kathleen Carroll of the New York Daily News gave the film three stars out of four, criticizing the score and the live-action footage, but praising the animation of the dragon and the performances, writing "Sean Marshall, as Pete, looks and acts natural on camera which makes him a refreshing change from those sweet little cherubs usually cast in Disney movies. Miss Reddy plays her role with crisp efficiency and fortunately receives strong support for the rest of the cast, particularly Dale, so slick and funny as the conniving medicine man he nearly upstages the cuddly dragon."
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."
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.
On the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 56% based on 27 reviews, with an average rating of 5/10. The site's consensus states: "Boring and slow, this is a lesser Disney work, though the animation isn't without its charms." Metacritic gave film a score of 46 based on 5 reviews, indicating "mixed or average reviews".
During its initial release, the film grossed $16.1 million in distributor rentals from the United States and Canada, which was ranked sixteenth on Variety's box office hits list of 1978. 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 honors
- Academy Award for Original Song Score – Al Kasha, Joel Hirschhorn and Irwin Kostal
- Academy Award for Best Original Song – Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn for "Candle on the Water"
Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films Awards
- 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. Principal photography commenced in January 2015 in New Zealand, with Lowery directing, and subsequently released on August 12, 2016.
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