I don’t know about you guys, but I love Pete’s Dragon. A lot of people seem to secretly disdain it, but I find it charming and a great relic from my childhood. Behind The Three Caballeros, it might just be my second favorite Disney film. I mean, I owned at LEAST two VHS tapes of it, because I wore the first one out from watching it so much (to put it in perspective, I had four copies of Caballeros. Yeah, I love that movie).
It always baffles me when I hear people talk bad about the film. It’s a film about a kid’s imaginary friend, who happens to be a dragon, ACTUALLY being real. Who WOULDN’T have wanted that to be them when they were a kid? Heck, I want that to be me now.
I recently re-watched the film on DVD and it rekindled my love for it, so I thought I might explore the film a bit more in depth for those of you out there who do enjoy it.
To give a little background, Pete’s Dragon is a 1977 Walt Disney Productions film that was a hybrid of live action and animation. Actually, the entire film is live action, but Elliott the dragon is completely animated.
The film tells the story of a young orphan named Pete, who runs away from his adoptive, abusive hillbilly family, The Gogans. Pete comes across the town of Passamaquoddy, a small fishing community in Northeastern Maine in the early 20th century. He makes a new home in a cave with his only friend, a dragon named Elliott. Elliott can make himself invisible, and only really makes himself seen by Pete. Of course, when Elliott tries to help, he sometimes causes havoc, which occasionally lands Pete in trouble with the locals. Pete is taken in by Nora, daughter of the drunken old lighthouse keeper, Lampie, and together, they all form a wonderful bond. They overcome the odds, keep Pete away from The Gogans, and save Elliott from Doc Terminus. At its most basic levels, it is a pretty heartwarming tale about finding your place in the world, finding your family, and to some extent, redemption. Of course, I never really understood these themes until I was much older, but as a kid, it had an INVISIBLE DRAGON CAUSING A RUCKUS. Come on. That’s awesome.
Pete’s Dragon started its life as an unpublished short story by writers Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field. The Disney studio acquired the rights to the story in the 1950s, with the intention of turning it into an episode of the Disneyland anthology program Walt Disney Presents. Instead, it was thought it would be better as a feature length film, so a story began to be fleshed out.
In its very early development stages, it was conceived as a psychological drama. Pete was originally written as a boy who had trouble dealing with the harsh reality that he lived in, so he creates and ventures into the fantasy world that Elliott inhabits. Elliott was not supposed to be seen at all throughout the film, existing only as a fantasy in Pete’s mind. After some discussion, a sequence was proposed to have Pete and Elliott meet in a surreal world to at least let the audience see the dragon for a bit.
Due to the many other projects on their plate at the time, Walt Disney Productions shelved the idea for a few years to concentrate on other things. After Walt’s death, a number of these shelved ideas were looked at again and considered for production, Pete’s Dragon among them. Obviously, this one passed the initial inspection, and work began on it again.
When some folks from the animation department were brought in, the direction of the project changed. The serious tone of the film was abandoned, and evolved into the more family friendly fantasy adventure we know it as today. On top of that, many within the production cried foul that for a movie called Pete’s Dragon, they only planned on showing him a single time. So, Elliott was brought into the story much more. Malcolm Marmorstein was brought in to write out the screenplay.
Another big change came when Joel Hirschhorn & Al Kasha, an Oscar winning team, were hired to write a song for the film. They came up with the memorable “Candle on the Water,” which also went on to win an Academy Award. An interesting bit of trivia is that Hirschhorn & Kasha claim that “Candle on the Water” is a tribute to their other two Oscar wining songs (which were from The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno). They took elements from each film (water and fire, respectively) to come up with the song for Pete’s Dragon. The song also works as a metaphor for the lighthouse that Nora, Lampie, and eventually Pete, all call home.
The song writing team also convinced studio heads that the film could be a major success if they allowed them to write some more songs to help flesh out the story. The studio agreed, so the two, along with Irwin Kostal, wrote the entire score. Stand out songs include “Candle on the Water” (which, again, won an Oscar), “Passamaquoddy,” “Brazzle Dazzle Day,” and “I Saw a Dragon.” Actually, looking back on the song “I Saw A Dragon,” it’s hard to imagine this sequence making it past Disney’s top brass, with beer barrels end up popping and soaking the tavern in foam. As a kid, I loved it, but I’m not so sure parents would enjoy that these days!
The movie was filled with stars of that time: Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, and my personal favorite, Jim Dale as the villainous Doc Terminus. The lighthouse was built on a point above Morro Bay, California, which was a stand in for the story’s Maine setting. The beacon on top of the lighthouse was so large that Disney had to get special permission from the Coast Guard to operate it so it wouldn’t confuse ships passing by.
All of the live action scenes that featured an invisible Elliott were met with numerous production problems. It was one thing to work with actors, but it was another thing entirely to make it believable that a living, breathing creature was in scenes when he wasn’t actually there. One good example of this is the scene were an invisible Elliott walks through wet cement, living his foot prints behind. The effect was fairly simple to achieve. A set of footprints was created, and then covered up with a board that could slide easily out of its frame. Fresh cement was to be poured over the board, and when an out of sight stand hand pulled it from its place, the cement would sink into the holes, and it would seem like the footsteps “appeared” out of nowhere. To try to save some time, crew poured the cement the night before the shoot, which of course, hardened overnight, and had to be rescheduled for another day.
One of Disney’s fabled Nine Old Men, Ken Anderson, designed the initial look of Elliott, but Don Bluth was the animation director for the film itself. The animated portions were under an exhaustive deadline, made even worse by the production issues. But Don and his team worked feverishly to meet their deadline, sometimes working until late at night, long after the janitors went home! They had to animate Elliott over each frame of the live action footage, which was an incredibly laborious process. One technique used heavily in the film was compositing, where up to three scenes might be composited together; a live action foreground, a live action background, and the animated middle ground containing Elliott himself.
The animators did finish on time, but the film premiered on its first night in a rough print format, without stereo sound. It wasn’t until a few days later that the film was 100% completed effects and all.
The film was not as successful as the studio hoped when it premiered in 1977. Though it did make $36 million on a $10 million budget, it was not well received by many critics. Many found the film to be lacking a solid story, and it appeared to be trying to replicate the success of Mary Poppins too much.
I, however, am one of the champions of the film. Some of my fondness for it may be because I’m remembering it through the rose tinted glasses of my childhood, but I feel that even today, it holds up as a fantastic kid’s film. It’s not a perfect movie by any means, but if you’re looking for a wonderful family film that you haven’t shown your kids yet, I really think they would enjoy it!
How do you feel about Pete’s Dragon? Do you enjoy it as much as me? Do you dislike it for some reason? Let us know in the comments below!
Tickets are now on sale for the
EPCOT 30 YEAR ANNIVERSARY CELEBRATION!
Come celebrate EPCOT’s 30th Anniversary in style with a live taping of MiceChat’s Communicore Weekly! Join co-hosts Jeff Heimbuch & George Taylor, along with MiceChat’s Dusty Sage, Kevin Yee, and the Communicore Weekly Orchestra, for a fun-filled night of fandom and frivolity as they tape a special hour long episode of the hit show, Communicore Weekly.
Join us on the evening of Saturday, September 29th 2912 in the Norway Pavilion Special Events Lounge in EPCOT’s World Showcase for this one of a kind event!
Your ticket includes:
- Admission into the live taping of CW in the Norway Pavilion of EPCOT (note: admission into the park is NOT included)!
- Meet special guest, Ron Schneider, the original Dreamfinder!
- Decadent dessert reception!
- Short scavenger hunt hosted by Kevin Yee before the show will be available to those who would like to participate (prizes will be awarded)!
- Prizes, giveaways and more!
- The chance to be a part of EPCOT and Communicore Weekly history!
- Endless Five Legged Goats and perhaps even a real life Bathroom Break!
- Exclusive late night ride after park closing on a selected EPCOT attraction to cap off the evening!
For more tickets and more information, be sure to visit MiceChat.com/store!
by Jeff Heimbuch
If you have a tip, questions, comments, or gripes, please feel free email me at [email protected] or leave a comment below. I’d love to hear from you!
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Jeff can help you plan your perfect Disney vacation with Fairy Godmother Travel! Call him at 732-278-7404 or email him at [email protected] for a free, no-obligation quote for Walt Disney World, Disneyland, Disney Cruise Line, Aulani or Adventures By Disney.
Jeff also writes another column called From The Mouth Of The Mouse. We invite you to check it out.
Jeff co-hosts the weekly VidCast Communicore Weekly as well!