For my fellow Canadians, I hope you had a good Thanksgiving weekend. We’re now at the half-way point in this blog series, focusing on movies that involved Disney Animation Studios, but aren’t produced by the legendary studio. Some of these movies are mostly live-action, some are almost entirely animated. From this point on, with a couple of exceptions, there’s pretty much always a mix of both.
Pete’s Dragon released during the Disney Dark Age, in November of 1977. It was originally conceived as a two-part episode for the Disneyland TV series back in 1957, but was shelved shortly after. It’s based on an unpublished short story by Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field, in which Miller was hired on as a scriptwriter at the time it was planned for Disneyland. At one point they planned to begin filming in October of 1958, but Walt Disney wasn’t sure how to approach the project.
In 1968, several writers were hired to write a script. They submitted their outline, but the project continued to languish for another 7 years. Finally in 1975, producer Jerome Courtland re-discovered the project and hired Malcolm Marmorstein to write a musical version of the film. He reimagined the story in several major ways. He changed the setting from a contemporary time into a period setting in the early 1900’s. In the original short story, the dragon was imaginary. For the movie, he made the dragon real, instead of being a figment of Pete’s imagination. In early drafts, Elliot (the dragon) spent most of the movie invisible, save for one animated sequence. However, veteran animators felt that the audience would lose patience with the idea of an invisible dragon, and argued Elliot should be seen far more often. Marmorstein conceded that “We tried a completely invisible dragon, but it was not fun. It was lacking. It’s a visual medium, and you’re making a film for kids.”
The dragon was named Elliot after actor Elliot Gould, who was a personal friend of Marmorstein’s from his theater writing days. He also named the movie’s main town, “Passamaquoddy”, after a real Native American tribe from Maine. Don Chaffey was chosen as the director. Some of his more famous works include One Million Years B.C., The Three Lives of Thomasina, and occasional episodes for MacGyver and Charlie’s Angels.
Fun fact – the lighthouse they built for the movie was large enough that they needed special permission from the Coast Guard to operate it, since doing so during filming could have confused passing ships. Another fun fact is this is the first Disney movie involving animation that didn’t include any of the famous Nine Old Men (the original 9-member animator team).
Pete’s Dragon released in November of 1977 to mixed reviews. The most positive review came from The New York Times, which declared Pete’s Dragon as “the most energetic and enjoyable Disney movie in a long while.” The reviewer also praised several of the actors for their performances, but noted that the movie felt too long and featured too much alcohol consumption for a kid’s movie. Gene Siskel gave it 2 out of 4 stars, saying that it felt stale and was little more than a TV special put on the big screen. Some other critics were far more harsh. The movie earned $18 million on a $10 million budget on its first release, which was considered a disappointment. Thanks to later re-releases, it’s earned a total of somewhere between $36 and $39 million (the numbers aren’t entirely clear with this one). It is an overall profitable movie, but it didn’t get anywhere near the Mary Poppins-size blockbuster they were hoping for. It’s been released several times on home video, most recently on Blu-Ray in 2012 for its 35th anniversary.
As for the movie itself, I remember seeing this one as a kid, but I forgot most of the movie before finally watching it again. As a kid, I felt that it was a bit too long, but there were things I liked about the movie. I was never entirely sure how I felt about Pete’s Dragon as a whole though. Now, I’m pretty sure what my thoughts are.
There are things to like about this movie. Elliot the dragon is entertainingly dopey and childlike, and it’s a unique take on a Dragon that makes him kind of entertaining. Despite Sean Marshall only being 12 at the time, and that his character is flat, he’s serviceable as the movie’s main human character. Helen Reddy is probably does the best acting work in the movie, not to mention she’s easily the best singer. There are times when she should have been more subtle, but it works. She’s probably also the best character in the movie. She’s generally kind and warm hearted, but has a tough side and knows when to stand her ground.
Jim Dale is fun as a pharmaceutical fraudster. He’s clever, kind of a convincing salesman, and he’s in love with how much of a schemer he is. And of course Mickey Rooney is entertaining as the keeper of the lighthouse, and a frequently drunk one at that. Roodney’s career spanned 9 decades (he began his career during the silent film era), appeared in over 300 films, and even continued appearing on film and on stage into his 90’s. His first film (Orchids and Ermine) and his last (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – 3 years after his death) released a full 90 years apart.
While the performances are fairly consistent, the music is not so much. “Candle on the Water”, sung by Reddy, was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Song. “I Saw a Dragon” and “Brazzle Dazzler Day” are both enjoyable numbers, and “Passamaquoddy” feels like the perfect introduction to the fraudster pharmacist. Most other songs are forgettable though, and they just make the movie feel longer and slower. Mary Poppins may have a bit too much music for my taste, but I still never found it tiresome or boring.
Even with the songs that are enjoyable, most of them go on a bit too long and the dance sequences are often too cheesy for their own good. For example, “I Saw A Dragon” starts with the lighthouse keeper talking about the dragon, but four minutes later, everyone is just dancing in the bar and nobody’s singing about the dragon anymore. This is the perfect example of a musical with too much music for its own good.
There are other issues with this story. The ending is too similar to Mary Poppins, with the dragon leaving Pete to help another kid in need. In this case, we don’t even know much about what Pete is like without his dragon, because they’re already traveling with each other when the movie begins. The school teacher also seems unnecessarily mean. Like the New York Times review mentioned, there is perhaps way too much drinking and drunkenness for a kid’s movie. The keeper of the lighthouse appears drunk on at least 3 occasions, including the moment we first meet him. It’s always played for laughs. He’s not the only drunk character either.
But the main problem is that this movie is too long for its own good. The plot is fairly straight forward – Pete is an orphan running away from the Gogans. The Gogans are an abusive family who adopted him just so they could work him as a slave on their farm. After he finds the movie’s main town, they kind of disappear for a while, replaced by the fraudster as the main villain. The fraudster eventually decides he wants to kill the dragon and use his organs as actual medicine. When the Gogans show up, they team up to kidnap Pete and use him as bait. Elliot escapes, burns the adoption contract and destroys the fraudster’s traveling wagon. Pete ends up staying at the lighthouse, and Elliot flies away to help another kid.
There’s a bit more to it than that, but this story could have easily been told in an hour and a half, if some of the songs were cut down and the action scenes used tighter editing. The scene where they try to capture Elliot feels like it goes on and on, with the dragon struggling beneath the nets. Meanwhile, the fuse on the harpoon gun takes way too long, and what kind of harpoon gun needs a fuse in the early 1900’s? The fuse takes so long that you never feel like Elliot is in any real danger, and that’s a problem. Same goes for the ship heading towards shore during a storm when the lighthouse isn’t on. It drags on too long and it takes away from the tension, especially when it’s also the first time we meet a character that until then, Reddy’s character only talks about.
I would only recommend this to people who have already seen the movie. I enjoyed parts of it through a bit of nostalgia, but the movie is too long for its own good. Some of the music and performances are enjoyable, but there’s nothing all that special about it. The movie doesn’t know how to do subtlety. Besides Reddy’s character and the fraudster, none of the characters are interesting from a writing standpoint. Even “Candle on the Water”, while a good song, only really works within the context of the film. Pete’s Dragon was remade in 2016. The remake received much more positive reviews, although I haven’t yet seen that one.
Next up is Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and it’s an awesome movie. After that it’s The Nightmare Before Christmas, and I only ever saw that once when I was about 12. I enjoyed it, but for some reason haven’t gotten around to seeing it since. I’m looking forward to finally changing that. A Goofy Movie is up next after that, and then we’ll only have 4 more movies to get through. Since I’ve decided not to do NaNoWriMo this year, I’m going to try to finish this blogathon by the end of November.
Fantastic piece on this movie, as always. Loved the bit on how much the script was changed before being made; I never knew about all that. I remember seeing parts of this movie throughout my childhood but I never looked into it or even seen the whole movie. It’s only after the modern and recent live-action movie that I remembered of its existence…
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