The Classic Pete's Dragon

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer
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On August 12, 2016, the Disney Company will release its latest live-action "re-imagining" of one of its earlier films. A tantalizing theatrical trailer has been released, but very little other information about this new version of a sentimental classic Disney movie, Pete's Dragon (1977):

For years, old wood carver Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) has delighted local children with his tales of the fierce dragon that resides deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. To his daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who works as a forest ranger, these stories are little more than tall tales…until she meets Pete (Oakes Fegley).

Pete is a mysterious 10-year-old boy with no family and no home, who has been wandering around the forest for the last six years and claims to live in the woods with a giant, green dragon named Elliott. And from Pete's descriptions, Elliott seems remarkably similar to the dragon from Mr. Meacham's stories.

With the help of Natalie (Oona Laurence), an 11-year-old girl whose father Jack (Wes Bentley) owns the local lumber mill, Grace sets out to determine where Pete came from, where he belongs, and the truth about this dragon

The film, co-written by David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks and directed by Lowery, began filming in January 2015 in New Zealand. Unlike the original version, this film will be neither a musical nor a comedy and the dragon will be created through CGI effects.

That story line is significantly different than the original 1977 film about a young orphan named Pete who, at the turn-of-the-last-century, tries to escape from a "hillbilly-ish" family named Gogan (with Ma played by Shelley Winters), who bought the boy and are using him to do all their chores. Pete is able to flee, thanks to the help of a huge green dragon with purplish and pink highlights named Elliott who can make himself invisible and is generally seen just by Pete.

They arrive in the small fishing community of Passamaquoddy, Maine. This is not the name of an actual town in Maine, but it is the name of a Native American tribe located in Princeton, Maine. The drunken old lighthouse keeper (Mickey Rooney) and his daughter, Nora (Helen Reddy), befriend Pete while Elliott's good-natured clumsiness causes chaos and confusion in the small town that is blamed on Pete.

A dastardly medicine show charlatan named Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale) and his henchman (Red Buttons) also shows up hoping to kill the dragon and sell every little piece of the creature. Elliott proves himself a hero during a major storm including reuniting Nora with her lost love, chasing away the Gogans, and getting Pete a loving new family. Now that Pete is safe and happy, Elliott flies off to help another child in trouble.

Actually, if you remove the upbeat musical numbers, the basic storyline is pretty disturbing with a lot of underlying sadness, not to mention child abuse and slavery (Pete was purchased by the Gogans from an orphanage for $50 plus legal, and they have the bill of sale), alcoholism, mourning for a loved one lost at sea, mindless superstition, and more. Pretty heavy baggage for a film that was marketed by Disney as the next Mary Poppins (1964).

As New York Times newspaper movie critic Janet Maslin pointed out in her November 4, 1977, review: "At two hours and 14 minutes, the movie is a lot longer than it needs to be. Miss [Helen] Reddy and a chorus of children proclaim that 'There's room for everyone in this world'. Passamaquoddy counts a handful of blacks among its population, but the children in that scene appear to be exclusively white."

Originally when Walt Disney first purchased the unpublished short story in 1957 as a possibility for his weekly television show, it was considered a psychological drama where the dragon would never be seen, so that it was up to the audience to decide if it was real or a figment of Pete's imagination.

Being invisible would also save a lot of money on special effects, much like the affable unseen rabbit in the 1944 play and 1950 movie Harvey, and the story would be told in only live action.


The original poster for the live-action musical of Pete's Dragon told a very different story than the upcoming reimagined version.

The original version had Pete as a boy who, for various reasons, was having trouble dealing with reality and needed to escape into a fantasy world where he met Elliott. At one point, Walt considered a "dream sequence" where Pete and Elliott would be seen together in this surreal world that was a little frightening.

The story had been written by Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field. Miller died in 1974, so he never saw the film made from his story. He was a popular screenwriter whose credits include Scarface (1932), The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Sea Hawk (1940), Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), and dozens of others.

After Walt's death, the Disney Studios rustled through some of the projects that Walt had been considering, including ones that had been earmarked for the weekly television show and developed some of them into films like The Aristocats (1970) and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971).

In 1975, co-producer Jerome Courtland asked screenwriter Malcolm Marmorstein to adapt a screenplay from the story. Marmostein's writing credits include everything from episodes of television series like Peyton Place and Dark Shadows, to Disney's feature film Return From Witch Mountain (1978).

Without Walt's leadership, several different departments got involved with making suggestions. Some animation staff were brought in to do some minor work and they convinced Ron Miller, president of Walt Disney Productions, that it made no sense to call the film Pete's Dragon if the audience only got to see the creature briefly once at the end.

They convinced him that the animation should be expanded, so that it was more of a live-action and animation fantasy that Disney had done so well and so often in the past. It was at this point that the serious tone of the film started to shift drastically and continued to do so as others became involved.

The Sherman Brothers had left the Disney Studios after the death of Walt, but returned briefly to work on The Aristocats and Bedknobs and Broomsticks and then left again. So, without "in-house" composers for the music, Disney approached songwriters Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn to write a theme song for the film after their Oscar winning songs for the films The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974).

Cleverly, the pair wrote the ballad "Candle on the Water" as a tribute to their previous two Oscar-winning songs, using the elements of water and fire (the candle) as "good luck." Interestingly, the song did go on to be nominated for an Academy Award but lost to "You Light Up My Life." The title of the song was also a reference to the lighthouse by the sea and impressed upper Disney management.

The songwriters were able to convince Miller that just one single song was wasting the possibilities of the story and that it should be expanded into a full-fledged musical that would be the "next Mary Poppins." They were then hired to write the entire score (with Irwin Kostal and the three were nominated for an Oscar for their work) that included roughly 10 original songs.

As animation historian (and longtime friend) John Cawley wrote in his book The Animated Films of Don Bluth (Image Pub, 1991), "When the film was released overseas, all the songs were cut out and the film proved more popular."

In 1978, Variety's listing of the top-grossing films of the previous year had Pete’s Dragon as No. 17. Its initial release brought in $18 million, which provided a decent profit over its $11 million cost, and some nice reviews, but the Disney Company was highly disappointed because it was hoping for a Mary Poppins-sized blockbuster in terms of revenue.

As a result, the film was cut from its original 134 minutes to 129 minutes during its initial run. A reissue appeared in 1984 that was edited further to just 106 minutes

The live-action version was directed by Don Chaffey, who had some experience with fantasy films like Jason and the Argonauts (1963), One Million Years B.C. (1966) and Creatures the World Forgot (1971). He also helmed some Disney features, including Greyfriars Bobby: The True Story of a Dog (1961), The Prince and the Pauper (1962), The Three Lives of Thomasina (1964), and Ride a Wild Pony (1975). He had never directed a musical either before or after this film.

The town square of Passamaquoddy and wharf area was constructed entirely on the Disney Burbank Studios backlot, partly utilizing the existing old Western set. Jack Martin Smith, the art director, reconfigured 30 existing buildings and constructed eight more, with the interiors shot on the Disney soundstages.

The lush landscapes and covered bridge at Disney's Golden Oak Ranch were used for some key scenes, as well. Harrison Ellenshaw's matte work would have made his famous father Peter proud.

The lighthouse for the film was built on on Point Buchon Trail, located south of Los Osos, California, roughly above Morro Bay. The trail was open to hikers to view the film location. This helps explains why in a supposed East Coast town, the sun appears to be setting in the east in the scene early in the movie in which Nora exits the lighthouse after putting Pete to bed.

The lighthouse was equipped with a large Fresnell-type lighthouse lens, with a wick stand inside that caused a beacon of light from 18 to 24 miles. In fact, it was so powerful and authentic that Disney had to get special permission from the Coast Guard to operate it because it might have confused passing ships.

Originally, there were plans to move the lighthouse to Disneyland, but the wear and tear on it was one reason that prevented that from happening, as well as the disappointing box office.

In addition, a miniature lighthouse was built for some of the special effects shots.

The live-action musical was plagued with numerous production problems. One scene called for (an invisible) Elliott to walk through wet cement. The effect was to be accomplished by having a set of footprints made and covered with a barrier.

Then fresh cement was poured over that. The barrier would be removed and the "footprints" would sink into the new cement. In an effort to save time, the crew poured the top layer of cement the night before the shoot. Of course, the cement hardened over night and the entire set-up had to be rescheduled.

Those delays also delayed the animation since it was painstakingly drawn over large frame blow-ups of the completed live-action scenes, the same process later used for Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).

"We just had to be able to imagine that Elliot was there," cinematographer Frank Phillips said of the live-action filming that included wire work to suggest the dragon's presence. Interestingly, Phillips' Disney career actually began back in the 1920s when he was a youngster chosen to be in the crowd scenes in the Alice Comedies produced by Walt Disney.

In addition, in these years before digital manipulation, considerable sodium light production was done on one of the few remaining stages equipped for this work. Blue screen photography and miniatures were also used.

The movie then progressed to the Disney animation department and the whole thing was finally put together by Eustice Lycett's special optical effects team.

"The end product was often third and fourth generation negative," Phillips related at the time, "which provided a major test for the fine grain characteristics of Eastman color negative II film 5247."

Phillips had just completed filming Disney's The Shaggy D.A. (1976) and was headed to Europe for another assignment when he was offered the opportunity to work on this big budget musical and he jumped at the chance.

The heart of the film has always been the relationship between the young boy and his guardian angel dragon.

According to Variety from December 31, 1977:

"Pete’s Dragon is an enchanting and humane fable which introduces a most lovable animal star (albeit an animated one). Budgeted at $11 million it was the most expensive film in the history of the Disney Studios, besting Mary Poppins by $4.5 million.

"The pic's storyline is just a shell. This is a star vehicle and the headliner has been created with love and care by Disney animators headed by Ken Anderson and Don Bluth. Elliott, the dumpy, clumsy, 12-foot tall mumbling dragon with the ability to go instantly invisible and the misfortune of setting the idyllic Maine town of Passamaquoddy even further back into the early 20th century, is a triumph."

The praise for Elliott was echoed in the Hollywood Reporter December 1977:

"Ken Anderson's visualization of the knowledgeable but smart, charming and remarkable Elliott is a marvelous mixture of simple complexity, transforming a cartoon concept into an individualistic character of much personality. The animation and special effects also assist the enterprise flawlessly."

According to the film poster, Elliot the dragon is "20 feet tall, 40 feet long. He can become invisible at the drop of a hat. Or spew red-hot flames. In fact, there is only one way to bring this awesome beast under control…Rub his tummy."

Disney Legend Ken Anderson was known as Walt's "Jack of All Trades." He joined the Disney Studios in 1934 and spent time as an animator, writer, art director and more including designing memorable characters like Shere Khan in The Jungle Book (1967). In addition, he worked on some of the earliest Disneyland attractions.

After 44 years with Disney, Anderson retired in 1978 after finishing his work on Pete's Dragon. He had also been working on an unrealized project, an animated feature called Catfish Bend, based on a series of novels, but felt the current administration would never allow it to be filmed.

He continued to work with Walt Disney Imagineering on special projects, including the proposed Equatorial Africa Pavilion for Epcot Center, which he developed in collaboration with author Alex Haley.

Anderson designed the character of Elliott.

In the April 7, 1978 issue of the Studio Newsreel (Vol. 7, No. 14), the internal newsletter of the Disney Studios, Anderson stated, "I don't know how I came up with Elliott. I like to think of him as an example of China's concept of the dragon as a symbol of luck and good will which came to them when they need him. He just came to me and I sure needed him!"

In a 1982 episode of the series Disney Family Album, Anderson said, "So I thought 'why not a big, bumbling Wallace Beery type of dragon?' A guy who can't even shave himself, has stubble on his chin. Yet he's warm hearted but crude. Also it would be kinda nice if he wasn't really able to be graceful. If he couldn't fly well because he allowed himself to get a little paunchy. So no longer were his little wings capable to lift him off without a great deal of effort which would make people feel for the dragon."

Vance Gerry and Pete Young boarded sequences of Pete's Dragon with Anderson.

Comedian Charlie Callas, known for the unusual sounds that he would include in his routines, provided the voice for Elliott, who communicated with odd vocalizations, pops and clicks that only Pete seemed to be able to translate. At the time, Callas was appearing on the television series Switch with actors Eddie Albert and Robert Wagner as the leads.

While Anderson was the designer of Elliott (and at one point thought of having the dragon have six legs and never walk upright), it was Don Bluth who was in charge of the animation.

Animator and director Bluth returned to the Disney Studio in April 1971 as part of a new training program to create a "new Nine Old Men" team. His first project as animator was on Robin Hood (1973), but he was moved up to directing animator on The Rescuers (1977), and then full animation director on Pete's Dragon (1977).

During this period at Disney, Bluth met Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy, who both did significant animation work on Elliott. The three shared the same feelings about animation and how it should be done. They left Disney in 1979, along with four other animators and four assistant animators, during the production of The Fox and the Hound (1981) to form Don Bluth Productions.

The Disney Company was grooming Bluth to become the leader of the new Nine Old Men and promoted him to the prestigious position of animation director. He drew the first and last drawing of each scene of the animated segments.

It was not unusual for him to regularly work 100 hours a week during the production to meet the deadline. Animator Gary Goldman commented in a studio press release at the time, "I remember toward the end of Pete's working until 10 at night. Not even janitors were here [at the Disney studio]."

Other new animators who worked on the film included Ron Clements, Glen Keane, Randy Cartwright, Dale Baer, Ed Gombert, and even Don Hahn as an assistant animator.

Originally, the animators were to create roughly 900 feet of animation on a $1.8 million budget. However, when management saw the first completed animation, they were so impressed that they demanded twice as much animation footage with no increase of budget or extended deadline.

Adding to the challenge of meeting the deadline was Bluth's insistence that many of the cels in the film, including Elliot's stomach and outline in key scenes, be hand-inked rather than Xeroxed, as was the norm at the time, so that the artwork would blend more organically with the live-action scenes.

Bluth met the impossible deadline, but was reprimanded for going $75,000 over the assigned budget. The final film showcases approximately 22 minutes of animation with Elliott. In the publicity, Anderson received all the credit for Elliott (even being sometimes labeled the animation director), with Bluth and his crew and their sacrifice not spotlighted.

When Bluth left the Disney Studios in 1979, he expressed how this incident was the beginning of him starting to think of leaving Disney to a reporter of the Pasadena Star-News newspaper: "Card [Walker, Disney CEO] had made an impossible deadline because he had already booked the picture into Radio City Music Hall. We worked until 9 every night to get the picture finished. The artists got no raises, not even any thanks. Then they read that Card and Ron [Miller, the production head] split $3 billion in bonuses. 'What is this?' the artists asked. I had no answers."

Pete's Dragon was the first Disney film to be recorded in the then new Dolby Stereo system. It was the first Disney film to be released as a part of the Fotomat deal Disney started in 1979 to license films to video. The film hit rental stores in March 1980. It was the first Disney animated feature film to not feature any work from any of the original Nine Old Men animators.


Elliott the dragon was one of the highlights of Disneyland's Main Street Electrical Parade.

The film premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on November 3, 1977. The general release of the movie was on December 16, 1977. That same year, Elliott made his debut in the Main Street Electrical Parade.

Elliott weighed more than 5,600 pounds, was 16 feet tall, more than 10-feet wide and was 38-feet long. He blew smoke through his nose and could also seem to disappear when all the lights were turned off on his frame in the dark. He made an appearance in the 1978 Orange Bowl halftime show. He was only supposed to appear for a year in the parade to promote the film, but was so impressive and beloved that he remained an iconic staple of the parade.

A version of the Main Street Electrical parade was created for the Walt Disney World Magic Kingdom, premiering June 11, 1977. The original Disneyland version debuted in 1972 and actually opened with the Sleeping Beauty Dragon (converted from an earlier Chinese dragon). The Magic Kingdom version of the parade bid farewell on September 14, 1992, and moved across the Atlantic Ocean...to Disneyland Paris.

The original Pete's Dragon remains a sentimental favorite for many Disney fans and, over the years, there has been some Elliott merchandise. The ebullient animated dragon and his comical interactions with the live actors still touches hearts, but it remains to be seen if his CGI doppelganger will have the same effect.

 

Comments

  1. By carolinakid

    I don't watch the film very often but I adore the score. I have the soundtrack CD and I play it while driving. I especially enjoy the songs Candle on the Water, It's Not Easy and Brazzle Dazzle Day. I saw the film in the theater during its initial release. I liked it but I was getting more into Saturday Night Fever which I think was released around the same time. I have zero interest in the remake as I do 99% of the remakes Disney does of their older films.

  2. By deedee73

    I love this classic & being that I have a toddler we have watched it within the last onto or so. I too have little interest in these new Disney remakes - no thank you.

  3. By DisDreams

    I have great memories of visiting the Disney Studios in the late '70's (during filming of "The Black Hole") and walking around the backlot (when there WAS an actual backlot). I remember seeing the remains of the "coastal town" built for Pete's Dragon with a dock jutting into the "sea". The sea was basically a pond dug from parts of the "Western set". Also remember seeing the metal wire outline of the Dragon used as a sight reference for the actors. One of the most enjoyable days in my life...

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