Pete's Dragon (1977)

G | 134 mins | Children's works | 3 November 1977

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HISTORY

The summary and note for this entry were completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. Summary and Note were written by participant Crosby Buhl, a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, with Jonathan Furner as academic advisor.

On 26 Dec 1957, DV reported that Seton I. Miller and S. S. Field’s original story, Pete’s Dragon and the U.S.A., was being developed by Walt Disney Productions with child actor Kevin Corcoran, who was featured at that time in Disney’s Old Yeller (1958, see entry). A 17 Feb 1958 Var news item added that principal photography was set to begin Oct 1958. However, the project remained in limbo until 1976; a 15 Jun 1976 DV brief announced the casting of Red Buttons and reported a start date of 6 Jul 1976. While the 21 Jul 1976 Var stated that shooting began “recently,” an Oct 1977 AmCin article claimed that one month of filming took place Jun 1976 at a studio-constructed mid-19th century lighthouse in Morro Bay, CA, before the production moved to the Disney Studios in Burbank, CA. Photography at the studio’s soundstages was confirmed in a 28 Jul 1976 Var brief and on 23 Feb 1977, Var reported that the production was recently completed. Although Miller was hired to write the script for Pete’s Dragon in 1957, Malcolm Marmorstein receives sole screenwriting credit on the 1977 release.
       As stated by animation art director Ken Anderson in another Oct 1977 AmCin article, the film was initially planned with only one animated sequence, ... More Less

The summary and note for this entry were completed with participation from the AFI Academic Network. Summary and Note were written by participant Crosby Buhl, a student at the University of California, Los Angeles, with Jonathan Furner as academic advisor.

On 26 Dec 1957, DV reported that Seton I. Miller and S. S. Field’s original story, Pete’s Dragon and the U.S.A., was being developed by Walt Disney Productions with child actor Kevin Corcoran, who was featured at that time in Disney’s Old Yeller (1958, see entry). A 17 Feb 1958 Var news item added that principal photography was set to begin Oct 1958. However, the project remained in limbo until 1976; a 15 Jun 1976 DV brief announced the casting of Red Buttons and reported a start date of 6 Jul 1976. While the 21 Jul 1976 Var stated that shooting began “recently,” an Oct 1977 AmCin article claimed that one month of filming took place Jun 1976 at a studio-constructed mid-19th century lighthouse in Morro Bay, CA, before the production moved to the Disney Studios in Burbank, CA. Photography at the studio’s soundstages was confirmed in a 28 Jul 1976 Var brief and on 23 Feb 1977, Var reported that the production was recently completed. Although Miller was hired to write the script for Pete’s Dragon in 1957, Malcolm Marmorstein receives sole screenwriting credit on the 1977 release.
       As stated by animation art director Ken Anderson in another Oct 1977 AmCin article, the film was initially planned with only one animated sequence, in which “Dr. Terminus” would chop up the dragon for his get-rich scheme; “Elliott” was to remain invisible through the rest of the picture. However, Anderson argued that audiences would “lose patience” with this scenario and convinced the studio that the dragon’s personality must be illustrated. He based his design drawings on traditional Chinese dragons that were aligned with goodness rather than evil, as well as the facial characteristics of actor Wallace Beery.
       Pete’s Dragon marked the first time in Disney’s fifty-year history that a starring animated character was integrated into live-action sequences after principal photography was complete; previously, all drawings were created before filming began and the live-action characters were composited into the animation. Careful attention was paid to keeping the shadows and coloring of human characters consistent with Elliott so the images would blend convincingly. In addition to a nineteen-foot mechanical model of the dragon that was used on set, a “handheld shadow box,” nicknamed the “dragon finder,” allowed filmmakers to visualize how Elliott would appear in each scene after it was animated.
       As described in AmCin, live-action sequences were filmed in front of a yellow screen with the Disney-licensed sodium vapor process on Eastman 5247 color negative II film. Additionally, Eastman Plus X negative 5231 was used for black and white masking. Director of photography Frank Phillips noted that the final film was a compilation of third and fourth generation negatives due to the layering of animation with live-action footage.
       Shortly before the film’s scheduled Los Angeles, CA, premiere on 15 Dec 1977 at the Century Plaza Theatre to benefit the Los Angeles International Film Expo, a 2 Dec 1977 DV news item reported that the picture marked Disney’s most expensive production to that time, with a budget of $11 million.
       The expense for special effects and animation paid off with critics, as many reviews noted that the Elliott character trumped the film’s script and actors. The 9 Nov 1977 Var review, which claimed that the film was “a star vehicle” for Ken Anderson and Don Bluth’s dragon and hailed the combination of live-action and animation as “never before more effectively realized,” commented that the film suffered “whenever Elliott is off screen.” A positive 4 Nov 1977 NYT review noted that the film treated alcoholism “carelessly enough to give one pause” and featured very few non-white townspeople, despite its musical number “There’s Room For Everyone In This World.”
       Pete’s Dragon was nominated for two Academy Awards in the following categories: Original Song Score and Its Adaptation or Adaptation Score (Song score by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, Score by Irwin Kostal) and for Original Song (Kasha and Hirschhorn’s “Candle On The Water”).
       As stated in AmCin, the picture marked the first time that Walt Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” who had worked on every Disney animated feature film since the 1930s, were not hired to participate in an animated Disney feature. Pete’s Dragon animation director Don Bluth was described as “partially responsible for recruiting and training the new generation of Disney animators” who were represented in the film.
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BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
American Cinematographer
Oct 1977
pp. 1026-29, 1082.
American Cinematographer
Oct 1977
pp. 1032-33, 1068.
American Cinematographer
Oct 1977
pp. 1036-37.
Daily Variety
26 Dec 1957.
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Daily Variety
15 Jun 1976.
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Daily Variety
2 Dec 1977.
---
Hollywood Reporter
7 Nov 1977
p. 4, 13.
Los Angeles Times
16 Dec 1977
p. 22.
New York Times
4 Nov 1977
p. 6.
Variety
17 Feb 1958.
---
Variety
21 Jul 1976.
---
Variety
28 Jul 1976.
---
Variety
23 Feb 1977.
---
Variety
9 Nov 1977
p. 16.
Variety
30 Nov 1977.
---
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
Starring
Starring
Introducing
as
Co-starring
Co-starring
Co-starring
Co-starring
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NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION COMPANY
DISTRIBUTION COMPANY
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Prod mgr
Unit prod mgr
Asst dir
2d asst dir
PRODUCERS
Prod
WRITERS
Based on a story by
Based on a story by
PHOTOGRAPHY
Dir of photog
FILM EDITOR
SET DECORATOR
COSTUMES
Cost des
MUSIC
Songs, Mus and lyrics
Songs, Mus and lyrics
Mus supv, arr and cond
VISUAL EFFECTS
Spec eff
Spec eff
Spec eff
Matte artist
DANCE
Dance arr
Choreog
Assoc choreog
MAKEUP
Hair stylist
STAND INS
Stunt coord
ANIMATION
Elliott created by/Anim art dir
Anim dir
Anim ed
Char anim
Char anim
Char anim
Char anim
Char anim
Char anim
Char anim
Char anim
Eff anim
Asst anim supv
COLOR PERSONNEL
Col by
DETAILS
Alternate Title:
Pete's Dragon and the U.S.A.
Release Date:
3 November 1977
Premiere Information:
New York opening: 3 November 1977
Los Angeles premiere: 15 December 1977
Los Angeles opening: 16 December 1977
Production Date:
June 1976--February 1977 in Morro Bay and Burbank, CA
Copyright Claimant:
Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Copyright Date:
15 December 1977
Copyright Number:
PA1371
Physical Properties:
Sound
RCA Photophone sound recording; Dolby System® noise reduction - high fidelity
Color
With animated sequences
Duration(in mins):
134
MPAA Rating:
G
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
25025
SYNOPSIS

In 1900s Maine, an orphan named Pete rides his invisible pet dragon, Elliott, through the forest to escape the Gogan family, who paid $50 to use Pete as a farmhand. The next morning, Pete declares that his life is happy now that Elliott loves and protects him. He sees a sign for the nearby town of Passamaquoddy and orders Elliott to remain invisible so they do not frighten the residents; however, the friends unwittingly wreak havoc as they enter the village. When Pete bumps into a schoolteacher, Miss Taylor, and apologizes for his pet dragon, he is scolded for telling tales and presumed to be a delinquent. As Miss Taylor walks away, Elliott fastens her petticoat to a nail and the undergarment is pulled from beneath her skirt, causing the school children to laugh. Unable to see the mischievous dragon, Miss Taylor blames Pete and threatens him with arrest. Meanwhile, the mayor assures a group of speculators that Passamaquoddy is a town where nothing unusual occurs, but Elliott trips a man carrying egg crates, splattering eggs into the mayor’s face. Townspeople complain that Pete is creating chaos with his imaginary dragon and the boy scolds Elliott. Just then, an intoxicated lighthouse keeper named Lampie sees Elliott and runs back to the Passamaquoddy Tavern to warn others, but he is discredited as a drunk. Lampie’s daughter, Nora, guides the old man to their home at the lighthouse and puts him to sleep. She sees Pete walking on the beach below and follows him to a cave, where he and Elliott are taking refuge. As Elliott hides, Nora learns that ... +


In 1900s Maine, an orphan named Pete rides his invisible pet dragon, Elliott, through the forest to escape the Gogan family, who paid $50 to use Pete as a farmhand. The next morning, Pete declares that his life is happy now that Elliott loves and protects him. He sees a sign for the nearby town of Passamaquoddy and orders Elliott to remain invisible so they do not frighten the residents; however, the friends unwittingly wreak havoc as they enter the village. When Pete bumps into a schoolteacher, Miss Taylor, and apologizes for his pet dragon, he is scolded for telling tales and presumed to be a delinquent. As Miss Taylor walks away, Elliott fastens her petticoat to a nail and the undergarment is pulled from beneath her skirt, causing the school children to laugh. Unable to see the mischievous dragon, Miss Taylor blames Pete and threatens him with arrest. Meanwhile, the mayor assures a group of speculators that Passamaquoddy is a town where nothing unusual occurs, but Elliott trips a man carrying egg crates, splattering eggs into the mayor’s face. Townspeople complain that Pete is creating chaos with his imaginary dragon and the boy scolds Elliott. Just then, an intoxicated lighthouse keeper named Lampie sees Elliott and runs back to the Passamaquoddy Tavern to warn others, but he is discredited as a drunk. Lampie’s daughter, Nora, guides the old man to their home at the lighthouse and puts him to sleep. She sees Pete walking on the beach below and follows him to a cave, where he and Elliott are taking refuge. As Elliott hides, Nora learns that Pete is an orphan and she invites him to eat chowder at the lighthouse. There, Pete agrees to stay the night and discovers that Nora is mourning the absence of her sailor fiancé, Paul, who has been lost at sea for one year. When Pete promises to ask his dragon for help, Nora realizes he is the boy Lampie saw and presumes that Elliott is Pete’s imaginary friend. The next morning, Lampie is horrified to discover Pete and fears another encounter with the dragon, but Pete assures him that Elliott is secluded in the cave. Meanwhile, Dr. Terminus, an elixir salesman, and his sidekick, Hoagy, arrive in Passamaquoddy to a hostile audience, as the townspeople remember the false promises of Terminus’s previous visit. However, the mock doctor wins over the townspeople with a demonstration aided by Hoagy, who disguises himself both as a deaf old woman who regains her hearing and a disabled man who throws away his crutches after drinking the elixir. Back at the lighthouse, Pete wishes to show Elliott the new suit Nora gave him, but Lampie forbids the boy from retrieving the dragon. When Pete insists on showing Elliott a photograph of Paul to assist in the sailor’s rescue, Nora entertains the boy’s fantasy. That evening, at the Passamaquoddy Tavern, an intoxicated Lampie tells Dr. Terminus and Hoagy that he saw Pete’s dragon. Although Terminus declines Lampie’s invitation to view Elliott, Hoagy drunkenly follows the old man to the cave. The terrified men offer Elliott a swig from Hoagy’s flask and the dragon belches fire, provoking Hoagy to report the sighting to his disbelieving partner, Terminus. The next day, Nora enrolls Pete in Miss Taylor’s school and his classmates ask about Elliott. Meanwhile, local fishermen blame Pete for their poor catch. Sometime later, an invisible Elliott rings the school bell and Miss Taylor whips Pete’s knuckles for insisting that his pet dragon is creating the disturbance. When Miss Taylor threatens the boy with a yardstick, Elliott bursts through the schoolhouse wall in anger, leaving a silhouette of his dragon-shape. As the town gathers in wonder, Terminus realizes that dragon body parts will make his elixirs all the more lucrative. Terminus and Hoagy head to the lighthouse to purchase Elliott from Pete, but the boy insists the dragon is not for sale. After Pete chases the men off by sounding the foghorn, Nora and Lampie invite him to live with them permanently. Sometime later, the Gogans arrive in town, brandishing the bill of sale that proves they own Pete, but Nora refuses to give up the boy. That evening, Terminus joins forces with the Gogans, recruits townspeople to gather at the Passamaquoddy boathouse and sets a trap for Elliott. Back at the lighthouse, Pete announces that Elliott has found Paul and the sailor is on his way home, but Nora asks Pete to put an end to his fantasies. Although Nora promises that she, too, will give up the illusion that Paul will return, Pete insists that Elliott is real. As a storm looms, Pete retrieves firewood for the lighthouse but is surprised by an urgent visit from Dr. Terminus, who claims that Elliott is making mischief in town. While Pete races into the trap, Nora spots an oncoming ship heading dangerously close to the rocks. On board the vessel, Paul spots the lighthouse and relishes the promise of returning home, but the lamp is extinguished by an errant wave. Meanwhile, Hoagy lures Elliott to the boathouse, but the dragon frees himself, saves Pete from the Gogans and breathes fire on the bill of sale. As the Gogans race out of town, Terminus fires a harpoon toward Elliott but is caught in its rope; propelled through the air, Terminus becomes ensnared in his own trap. Continuing his heroics, Elliott saves the mayor, Miss Taylor and other townspeople from a falling utility pole. Just then, Nora sounds the foghorn alarm and Elliott flies to the lighthouse with Pete on his back. The dragon breathes fire into the light and sets it ablaze in time to save Paul’s ship. When the storm subsides, Passamaquoddy fishermen flourish with plentiful catches and the townspeople celebrate Elliott. Nora reunites with Paul, who explains that he was the sole survivor of a shipwreck one year ago, but was stricken with amnesia. In recent days, however, his bed inexplicably turned over and he knocked his head, regaining the memory of his lost love. Pete announces that Elliott is responsible for the reunion and returns home with his new family, but Elliott reports that he must leave to help another boy in trouble. The friends bid each other a tearful farewell.
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Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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