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Pete's Dragon

Pete's Dragon(1977)

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teaser Pete's Dragon (1977)

This combination live-action and animated musical fantasy-comedy from Disney was adapted from an unpublished short story by an improbable source, Seton I. Miller, writer of many gritty dramas for Warner Brothers tough guys James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, and John Garfield. He also wrote dialogue for such decidedly non-Disney pictures as the original Scarface (1932) and Marked Woman (1937), starring Bette Davis in a story based on the bust of a notorious real-life prostitution ring.

Still, Miller had a keen sense for rousing boyhood adventure, displayed in his screenplays for the swashbucklers The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Sea Hawk (1940), and The Black Swan (1942). That sensibility comes to play in this story of a nine-year-old orphan who runs away from his brutal adoptive home with his protective "imaginary" friend Elliott, in reality a friendly green dragon who only sporadically reveals himself to anyone other than the boy. When the dragon's existence becomes more widely known, Pete must protect him from angry townspeople and a shifty snake oil salesman while fending off the evil Gogan family who adopted him. The two get involved in a number of adventures and Elliott becomes a hero in the town.

Disney bought Miller's story in the 1950s with the intention of using it for the company's anthology television series. It was eventually produced as this feature with a $10 million budget starring Shelley Winters, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Jim Dale, and pop singer Helen "I Am Woman" Reddy. It was fairly successful on its release, grossing about $39 million at the box office, but became an even bigger hit on video when it was discovered by kids in the 1980s.

The story is set in turn-of-the-20th-century coastal Maine, much of it in the lighthouse kept by Rooney and Reddy. That structure was built for the production on Point Buchon Trail near Los Osos, California. The lighthouse had such a large beacon for filming purposes that, in order not to mislead passing ships, Disney had to apply to the Coast Guard for special permission to operate it. Although the lighthouse is gone now, hikers along the beautiful scenic Port Buchon Trail can still visit the spot where filming took place.

Reviews were somewhat mixed, but the music garnered nominations from the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes as well as nominations by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films for best fantasy film, supporting actor (Buttons), and costumes.

The Oscar-nominated song, "Candle on the Water," reached #27 on the Adult Contemporary charts in a revised version recorded by Reddy.

From the standpoint of Disney studio history, Pete's Dragon is notable for being the first animated picture by the company not done by Disney's legendary original animation team, known as the Nine Old Men. It was entrusted instead to a large team headed by Don Bluth, later director of the animated films The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986), and Anastasia (1997).

The combination of live action and cartoon was achieved by the use of the sodium vapor process, aka yellowscreen, similar to today's chroma key or greenscreen compositing technique. The studio first used yellowscreen to similar effect in Mary Poppins (1964).

Elliott was given a high degree of lovability by being fashioned after the more benevolent Asian dragon image rather than the menacing European fire breathers (although Elliott does have one humorous moment of inadvertent flaming belching). The animators also decided to inject a touch of goofiness into the character by making him a little paunchy and not always very graceful when flying.

Disney revived the story, albeit much changed and presented as a straight fantasy-adventure drama. It was filmed in New Zealand and released in 2016 starring Robert Redford, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Wes Bentley, plus a lovable CGI beast.

Director: Don Chaffey
Producers: Jerome Courtland, Ron Miller
Screenplay: Malcolm Marmorstein, based on a story by Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field
Cinematography: Frank Phillips
Editing: Gordon D. Brenner
Art Direction: John B. Mansbridge, Jack Martin Smith
Animation Director: Don Bluth
Music Score: Irwin Kostal
Songs: Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kasha
Cast: Sean Marshall (Pete), Helen Reddy (Nora), Jim Dale (Dr. Terminus), Mickey Rooney (Lampie), Red Buttons (Hoagy), Shelley Winters (Lena Gogan)

By Rob Nixon

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