A Brief History of Pete’s Dragon

Written by Jeff Heimbuch. Posted in Disney History, Disney Movies, Features, The 626

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Published on July 15, 2012 at 12:03 am with 19 Comments

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Pete’s Dragon started its life as an unpublished short story by writers Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field.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.

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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!

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by Jeff Heimbuch

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About Jeff Heimbuch

Jeff has been in love with all things Disney since a very early age. He writes From The Mouth Of The Mouse and The 626 every week for MiceChat. He also collaborates on The Disney Review every weekend. Aside from that, he is one half of the devastatingly good looking duo of the weekly vid/podcast Communicore Weekly (the other half being fellow MiceChat columnist George Taylor), which you can find at www.communicoreweekly.com Jeff is also writing a book with former Imagineer and Disney Legend, Rolly Crump. You can find out more about the book at www.itskindofacutestory.com

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Comments for A Brief History of Pete’s Dragon are now closed.

  1. It would sure be a lot easier making that movie today, using computer effects. What an effort that must have been!

  2. Thanks for the nice article, I also almost burnt out my Pete’s Dragon VHS as a kid, that an Mary Poppins and others . . .

    With all of the remakes and prequels being churned out today, it is funny that people thought that people thought that Pete’s Dragon was just trying to replicate Mary Poppins, aside from having songs in the film, an invisible dragon has little to do with an english nanny with magical powers.

    I can’t believe that some don’t like the film, Steven Spielberg thought the story of a boy and a dragon was heart warming, and the film inspired him to make a little movie about boy and an extraterrestrial, appropriately enough, the boy in that little art house film is named Elliott.

    • I’m glad to know I’m not the only one who watched it that much as a kid!

      And nice catch on the Pete’s Dragon / ET connection!!

  3. Jeff you reminded me of one great evening at the Walt Disney Studio back in the 70′s WED Days. I was invited to see the first offfical screening of Pete’s Dragon with some friends at the Studio, along with a lot of Press and celebrity’s. Afterward we attended the Screening Party in one of the big sound stages that had been set up for the evening. They even had the top portion of the light house there where Helen Reddy would perform her Candle on The Water number from the film. The lights were dimmed, stars were projected, and Helen sang as the beacon revolved behind her. What a spectacular party.

    • That must have been a truly amazing sight. I won’t lie…I’m pretty jealous of you for that. Sounds like it was an amazing night!

  4. I used to love this movie as a kid. You forgot an important song though…the “I love you too” song. That for me was the most memorable song in the film and the most touching. I’ll have to revisit the film at some point and see how it holds up.

  5. Born in the early 80′s, my sister and I watched Pete’s Dragon over and over on VHS just like you did! It was still a pretty amazing movie because computer graphics in movies hadn’t really been developed yet. We laughed an laughed at the “passamaquatty” and “I saw a dragon” scenes and my sister and I learned all the songs and sang along. Probably our least favorite was candle on the water because it was too sappy for us at the time ha!

    • It’s funny you say that, because as a kid, I also tended to sway during “Candle on the Water.” Of course, I appreciate it much more now, but give me “Passamashloddy” over that any day of the week.

  6. One of my favorite MainStreet Electrical Parade floats was the Pete’s Dragon that was added after the movie came out. Loved those happy Dragon greetings he made with Pete sitting high on his neck.

  7. Loved the film as a kid, saw it after about 15 years of hiatus (as an adult)… and love it even MORE! My gosh what a great film. It’s so hilarious, touching, off-beat and just plain *fun*. Now, this is by no means a given. Many of the films I watched 100 times as a kid had a “what was I thinking!?” moment about 5 minutes into them watching as an adult. It’s weird because you just never know which movies were truly outstanding, and which movies simply appealed to your simplistic nature as a kid. I can guarantee to all the adults who haven’t seen this movie since childhood, this one stands the test of time. In fact, I think I actually like it more as an adult, and that is saying something!

    • Definitely agree on that. Many films I watch now and I’m surprised I could even sit through it as a kid. But this is one I can definitely watch again and again!

  8. The thing that makes this movie work (on an adult AND kid level) is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s just plain fun, you can feel the lightheartedness and playfulness and that is what makes this film’s dramatic parts even more touching. I mean, between the Gogans and Doc Terminus/Hoagy I can’t stop laughing… you just don’t find villains you can laugh at anymore, let alone 2 sets of them in one film!

  9. I loved it as a kid, but as an adult, recognized it as having the same problems that a lot of the Disney films of that era had- A sort of weird, mish mash of unrelated events that happen to get tied together at the end. The acting was inconsistent, the direction was really off in terms of scene building and to me felt like Peter Pan in a lot of ways. So yeah, I’ll be the nay-sayer on this thread.

    The animation was pretty neat as well, but as an animator myself, the deadlines the crew was under are very apparent.

    And Algernon? Making that film now would be just as difficult as it was making that film then… Though the problems would be very different.

    • Very true, acting inconsistent but I still rate it very near the top of Disney live action films. And the music? Who can beat it?

      I wore out my cassette of the soundtrack, for sure. I’m so glad Elliott is still in the Electrical Parade – new generations need to learn who he is.

  10. You know, Jeff. It is only a half-day movie!

    I do love it. it is charming and a great bridge from the post-Walt films. Reminds me a lot of the great films with Haley Mills.

    And who doesn’t love a scene with beer barrels and beer foam everywhere!

  11. DisWedWay, that is so funny that you mention that wrap party, I was there too. But I was working the party. At that time, I was a busboy working at the Plaza Inn. The studio had hired the chef of the PI to cater the event. The management recruited staff from the PI to work the event. We were all bussed from Disneyland to Glendale in the afternoon. At that point we setup the tables. If I remember correctly it was held in one of the sound stages. Although I didn’t recognize all the sets that were constructed (I obviously hadn’t seen the movie yet since it wasn’t publicly released yet) I do remember there was a set of Dr. Terminus’ wagon tent, some semblance of the bar that Lampie frequents, a front porch/house facade and the lighthouse up on stage. I recall that when the event started, the guests were brought into the sound stage after seeing the screening of the film. There were entertainers reenacting and improving in the sets. Then the meal began. I remember being so star-struck because besides the stars from the film (Mickey Rooney, Helen Reddy, etc.) there was also numerous actors from the Disney-stable. I recall hearing rumors that Dean Jones, Sandy Duncan, Anntte Funicello were attending (although I didn’t see them personally) However, I was asked by George Lindsey (most people remember him as Goober on the Andy Griffith Show) asking me to bring him more ribs. I was thrilled!

    After the event was over we stayed to cleanup and then were bussed back to Disneyland. Man that was a long day! And to make matters worse, we had to be back early the next morning. Again, bussed to the studio from Disneyland. This time the event was for theatre owners and movie distributors. This event was a buffet luncheon setup and served in the backlot (when it was still there). Our instructions and tasks were a bit different for that event. We were responsible to just setup and tear down. The time inbetween was our time. And no real restrictions were imposed. I was able to roam relatively freely around the studios. I recall a fenced area that had about 6 to 10 Volkswagen beetles (number 53 of course). All were equipped for different stunts and tricks. (this was around the time of a lot of the Love Bug sequels – Herbie goes to Monte Carlo, Herbie goes Banana’s, etc). Weird to see an inanimate celebrity. I also wandered into the soundstage where the cave sequences for Pete’s were filmed. Another highlight was to stroll the backlot streets where so many of the Disney live action movies of the 50′s 60′s and 70′s were filmed. When I see those movies today I note to whoever might care to listen “I’ve been on that street!” It’s such a cool memory.

    I have so many excellent and stories to tell my friends and family about my tenure working at Disneyland, but this memory is one of absolute favorites,

  12. Awesome article. Thanks for posting. This is my favorite Disney movie of all time (although I won’t compare it to the Avengers). It makes me happy to share this childhood memory now with my own children.

  13. I too am a fan of this movie. I used to go around humming Brazzle Dazzle Day song for hours at a time. Elliott was a kid himself at heart. Long live Elliott!

  14. Pete’s Dragon has been one of my favorite Disney movies since I was a kid. I remember having a plush Elliott I’d carry around all the time… by the neck! It got to the point the stuffing moved out of his neck, causing his head to flop over to the side.

    I’ve been meaning to get this on DVD (I have it on VHS packed away in a box).