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Disney Plus-Or-Minus: Pete's Dragon
Disney animation appeared to be mounting a bit of a comeback in 1977. The year began with The Many Adventures Of Winnie The Pooh, mostly recycled material but at least they’d remembered it existed and had done something with it. Then in June, The Rescuers became a surprise hit, the studio’s most well-received and popular animated feature in years. Their Christmas release was Pete’s Dragon, an ambitious and extravagantly mounted musical fantasy that marked a return to the Mary Poppins/Bedknobs And Broomsticks template of mixing live-action with animation. It should have capped the year on a high note and propelled the animation division to new heights. Unfortunately, things didn’t quite work out that way.
Pete’s Dragon had been in the works even longer than The Rescuers. It started out as a treatment by Seton I. Miller, a Hollywood veteran who’d written the original Scarface, The Adventures Of Robin Hood, and won an Oscar for Here Comes Mr. Jordan, and S.S. Field. For a time back in the 50s, Walt developed the story as a potential TV vehicle for Kevin Corcoran, the often-irritating young star of Toby Tyler and frequent little brother of Tommy Kirk. But when no one seemed able to wrap their mind around the material, the project died on the vine.
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Jerome Courtland had been an actor at Disney around that time, appearing in the film Tonka and starring in the Disneyland serial The Saga Of Andy Burnett. He’d since moved behind the camera, producing movies like Escape To Witch Mountain and directing Run, Cougar, Run. Perhaps he remembered Pete’s Dragon from its initial development period. Whether he did or not, he rediscovered the project, brought it to Ron Miller and decided to take another crack at it.
Courtland hired Malcolm Marmorstein to flesh the treatment out into a screenplay. Marmorstein started his writing career on soap operas like Peyton Place and Dark Shadows. He’d also written the comedies S*P*Y*S and Whiffs, both starring his friend Elliott Gould. Rumor has it that Marmorstein named the dragon Elliott in honor of his buddy. This would not be Marmorstein’s only Disney assignment and the real Elliott Gould will be appearing in this column himself before long.
The project continued to evolve with the addition of animators and musicians. Originally, Elliott was going to remain invisible and potentially imaginary throughout the film. That changed after Courtland and Miller decided to reveal the dragon as an animated character at the end. Ken Anderson was put in charge of Elliott’s design and he lobbied hard to get more of the character into the film. He argued, not unreasonably, that audiences would get bored and frustrated waiting for the dragon to appear. So Elliott slowly but surely got more and more screentime.
The animation would be directed by Don Bluth and executed entirely by the new recruits from places like CalArts. This would be the first major project for Disney’s animation department without the input of the Nine Old Men. Ken Anderson, who had worked on the Silly Symphonies and had been art director on Snow White, was undeniably an old man but he wasn’t officially one of “the” Old Men. Yeah, I don’t understand the cutoff for membership in that esteemed group, either.
It was a big test for the new guys and Bluth was determined to get it right. He and his crew worked long hours, inking cels by hand to match the live action footage. Rather than paying the animators overtime, the studio offered comp time to make up for the extra work. By the end of production, Bluth had racked up enough time off to start work on his own independent short film, Banjo The Woodpile Cat. In many ways, Pete’s Dragon marked the beginning of the end for Bluth’s Disney career. His disillusionment with the studio would come to a head a couple years later.
While Ken Anderson was busy campaigning for more animation, songwriters Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn were fighting for more music. Kasha and Hirschhorn had been hired to write a single song for the movie. But they felt Pete’s Dragon had the potential to be another Mary Poppins and, by extension, they could be the next Sherman Brothers. When their song, “Candle In The Water”, was well-received by the producers, they pushed to turn Pete’s Dragon into a full-on musical. They ended up contributing a total of ten songs to the movie and hung around to write songs for a handful of other pictures, including Freaky Friday.
The expanded scope of Pete’s Dragon necessitated a director who was familiar with both the Disney method and large-scale spectacle. Ordinarily, this would have been a job for Robert Stevenson but he had retired after The Shaggy D.A. Instead, the job went to Don Chaffey. Chaffey had made a few smaller films for Disney: Greyfriars Bobby, The Three Lives Of Thomasina and Ride A Wild Pony. But he also had experience with visual effects from non-Disney movies like Jason And The Argonauts and One Million Years B.C. He didn’t have a lot of experience with musicals. But then again, neither had Robert Stevenson before he made Mary Poppins and that turned out all right.
Chaffey filled his cast with a mix of newcomers and old-school Hollywood veterans (including Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Shelley Winters, and Jim Backus, returning to Disney for the first time since Now You See Him, Now You Don’t) with very little in between. Pete himself was played by 11-year-old Sean Marshall. Marshall had some experience, mostly on television, but didn’t stick around the business much past Pete’s Dragon, although Don Bluth did use him as voice talent for his Disney short, The Small One. The sea air in Pete’s Dragon must have agreed with him. He later enlisted in the Navy and the Merchant Marines.
To play Nora, the kindly lighthouse keeper’s daughter, the studio wanted Olivia Newton-John. She was unavailable, so they went with another Australian pop star, Helen Reddy. Reddy became a huge star in 1972 with her neo-feminist anthem, “I Am Woman”. Since then, she’d had more hit singles, been a frequent guest on 70s variety shows like The Carol Burnett Show, and even had stints hosting the late-night music spotlight The Midnight Special and her own self-titled but short-lived variety show. She’d only appeared in one other movie, as Sister Ruth, the singing nun, in the all-star disasterama Airport 1975. But she had a fresh-scrubbed wholesomeness that made her perfect for Disney.
The movie takes place in New England, although that is not immediately self-evident. When we first meet Pete and the invisible Elliott, they’re on the run from Pete’s abusive foster family, the Gogans. As portrayed by Shelley Winters, Charles Tyner, Gary Morgan and Jeff Conaway, the Gogans are broad hillbilly caricatures that make Ma and Pa Kettle look downright subtle. During their knockabout opening number, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were in the Deep South.
Pete and Elliott elude capture and soon find themselves in the quaint seaside village of Passamaquoddy. Elliott causes all sorts of trouble but since the villagers can’t see him, they blame Pete and label him a jinx. While the dragon is momentarily visible, they run into Lampie (Rooney), the frequently inebriated lighthouse keeper. Lampie tries to convince the regulars at the local tavern that he’s seen a dragon but his (literal) song-and-dance routine is dismissed as just another of Lampie’s drink-induced hallucinations.
The boy and his dragon seek shelter in a cave where they’re discovered by Nora. She brings Pete up to the lighthouse and quickly appoints herself as Pete’s surrogate mom. Pete also learns that Nora had been engaged to a sailor named Paul whose ship was lost at sea about a year ago (shockingly, he does not discover this information via a rendition of “Nora (You’re A Fine Girl)”). To repay her kindness, Pete tasks Elliott with learning Paul’s fate.
The peace and quiet of Passamaquoddy is next disturbed by the arrival of Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale, a British actor/singer who will be appearing in this column again), a flamboyant snake oil salesman, and his assistant, Hoagy (Red Buttons). This is not Terminus’s first visit and the townsfolk are none too happy to see him back. Fortunately, he’s got a catchy song that’s enough to make everybody overlook how badly they got swindled the last time he blew into town. Maybe a big production number could have helped Dr. Snodgrass from Treasure Of Matecumbe.
Nora enrolls Pete in school but the villagers are still blaming him for everything that’s been going wrong, including the fact that the fish have stopped biting. When the teacher, Miss Taylor (Jane Beal), punishes him for some imagined transgression, Elliott bursts in to the rescue. Even though he was invisible, the enormous dragon-shaped holes he left in the walls are enough to convince Dr. Terminus that there really is a dragon in town. When his offer to buy the creature is rebuffed, he resolves to capture him one way or another.
Things go from bad to worse when the Gogans turn back up, demanding that Pete be turned over to them. Nora immediately pegs them as a bad batch and refuses to hand him over. But Dr. Terminus sees a group of potential allies and proposes they work together to capture both Pete and Elliott. With everyone in town eager to rid themselves of the bad luck boy, they have no trouble recruiting a small army to carry out their plan.
Terminus and Hoagy lure Pete and Elliott to the boathouse, where the Gogans and the townsfolk are lying in wait. They temporarily subdue the dragon but Elliott is able to break free and send both Terminus and the Gogans packing. But in the meantime, a big storm is lashing the town, threatening the lives of Passamaquoddy’s most prominent citizens. Elliott, now visible, saves them from being crushed by a falling electrical pole, which turns out to be a pretty effective way of changing hearts and minds.
Back at the lighthouse, Lampie and Nora have missed out on the action since they have real jobs that are actually vital during a major storm. A huge wave has extinguished their light and a boat is rapidly approaching. Pete and Elliott make it back just in time for the dragon to use his flame to relight the beacon and save the day. Nora can’t believe that Elliott is real and gets another shock when her fiancé, Paul, steps off the rescued ship. Turns out that he’d been suffering from amnesia for the past year until an unseen force caused him to get another knock on the noggin that restored his memory.
Pete and Elliott are celebrated as heroes and Nora, Paul, Lampie and Pete form one big happy family back at the lighthouse. But Pete knows this means it’s time for Elliott to move on and help another little kid in trouble. Elliott takes the news like a champ and even Pete doesn’t seem all that broken up about saying goodbye to his closest friend. The dragon flies off and peace is restored to Passamaquoddy.
If you’re feeling generous, you could say Pete’s Dragon feels like an old-fashioned throwback to a simpler kind of movie. But it would be more accurate to say that it feels like a movie woefully out of touch with the current state of the art in 1977. Musicals had gone almost completely out of fashion and Pete’s Dragon makes it clear from the jump that this is going to be a big, splashy, in-your-face, one-song-after-another musical.
I enjoy a good musical as much as the next guy, probably more than some. But starting things off with the intentionally tone-deaf Grogans shout-singing “The Happiest Home In These Hills” seems like a tactical error. Why would you use some of your most grating characters and one of your most abrasive songs as your opening number? That song is immediately followed by the schmaltz-filled “Boo Bop Bopbop Bop (I Love You, Too)”. And that sets the unfortunate pattern for the rest of the movie, alternating songs between the aggressively obnoxious and the syrupy sweet.
Not all of the songs are terrible. “I Saw A Dragon” is kind of fun and any production number that culminates in exploding beer barrels can’t be all bad. “Candle On The Water” is a pleasant if slight ballad that Chaffey films as unimaginatively as possible, turning the lighthouse beacon into the world’s biggest disco ball. It would not have looked out of place on an episode of Reddy’s variety show.
But the movie’s biggest stumbling block is Elliott himself. Unlike Disney’s other live-action/animation hybrids, which temporarily deposited real actors into animated worlds, this one places a single animated character into the real world. The animation is fine and the illusion isn’t bad, although it won’t make you forget Who Framed Roger Rabbit. But Anderson’s design for Elliott is a little ugly. Elliott is neither cute nor fearsome, just kind of doofy-looking. The dragon’s speech patterns were provided by comedian Charlie Callas, who built his entire career on producing clicks, gibberish and sound effects with his mouth. The schtick got old on the nightclub circuit and it gets old here, too.
Pete’s Dragon premiered on November 3, 1977, at Radio City Music Hall. The full-length movie was immediately criticized as overlong, so Disney chopped more than 10 minutes before sending it into the world. A few critics liked it and it did enough business to turn a small profit but it was nowhere near the universally beloved blockbuster Disney had hoped it would be.
As with most films in 1977, its biggest problem was Star Wars. I was 8 years old when Pete’s Dragon came out and I had zero interest in going to see it. The only movies I wanted to see that year were Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. I have a foggy memory that my family did see Pete’s Dragon that holiday season. No doubt I was fidgety as a vampire in church, eager to be anywhere else. Sorry, mom.
Pete’s Dragon did manage to snag a pair of Oscar nominations. One was for Best Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Adaptation Score, one of those vaguely-defined categories that the Academy essentially got rid of once musicals went silent (it lost to A Little Night Music). The other was for “Candle In The Water” as Best Original Song, where it competed against “Someone’s Waiting For You” from The Rescuers.
Virtually all of the nominated songs that year had a Disney connection. The Sherman Brothers were represented with “The Slipper And The Rose Waltz” from their Cinderella musical The Slipper And The Rose. Marvin Hamlisch, who had composed the score for The World’s Greatest Athlete, was nominated with Carole Bayer Sager for “Nobody Does It Better” from The Spy Who Loved Me. Everybody lost to the title song from You Light Up My Life, a truly terrible song from an even worse movie that had somehow become a musical juggernaut. Songwriter Joseph Brooks had no Disney connection that I’m aware of, which is probably just as well since he seemed to be a bit of a scumbag. I only bring it up because it seems indicative of how musical tastes and styles were turning away from the tried-and-true Disney formula.
Pete’s Dragon feels like the end of an era for Disney. We won’t see another animated movie in this column for quite some time. By the time we do, the animation division will have been rocked by its biggest shake-up since the strike of 1941. The entire studio will spend the next several years scrambling to catch up to the biggest movie of 1977. Fasten your seat belts, Mouseketeers. Things are about to get rocky in Disney-Plus-Or-Minus-Land.
VERDICT: It’s a brazzle dazzle Disney Minus.
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