In the mid-1950s, an unpublished short story by S.S. Field and much-heralded screenwriter Seton I. Miller was picked up as a possible episode of the Disneyland television series. It told of a young boy and his imaginary friend, a powerful dragon who could protect the boy from the joyless world all around him: a fairly dramatic psychological study it was, and perhaps for that reason the idea was played around with a little bit but ended up being shelved and mostly forgotten.
Until, that is, the 1970s. Like a number of other projects from that era, the chief appeal of Pete's Dragon, ultimately released in 1977, seems to have been that once, twenty years earlier, the idea had been tacitly blessed by Walt Disney himself. Which was probably enough for the studio executives, led by Walt's son-in-law Rob Miller, to go forward; but the rest of us may have perhaps wished that the company had spent more time trying to find a way to fit into the new world of cinema in those days, and a bit less hiding under the blankets of re-creating their past successes. Disney's product, a wide-ranging slate of family-friendly comedies, adventures, and the occasional coming-of-age drama, was rightly seen as mawkishly sweet and out-of-touch, and audiences were staying away more and more from the grimly innocent, cheap kiddie fare that Miller and his crew viewed as the only way forward (it wasn't until two years after Pete's Dragon that Disney released its first PG-rated film, The Black Hole).
In its earliest iterations, the titular dragon remained strictly imaginary; eventually the decision was that he would be real, as revealed in the final scene. Eventually, this was changed so that the dragon would be seen throughout, created through the talents of Disney's new generation of animators, making 1977 a surprising banner year for animated releases from that studio. Since Robin Hood in 1973, the studio had been as quiet as a tomb, with only the short Winnie the Pooh and Tigger Too in 1974 keeping the artists busy; to an outsider observer, it looked rather like the company had given up and admitted that nothing they could put together was a patch on the classic films produced in the '30s and '50s that were still re-released with all the fanfare and triumph of returning champion. In reality, Disney spent most of the first half of the decade building a new team of animators: the old guard, typified by the famed Nine Old Men, had long since passed retirement age, and only a few of them remained to teach the new kids all of the tricks of the trade. Thus did the surprising flurry of activity in '77 come about: though March's The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh was a sheer cash-in effort, combining three previously-released shorts into one feature, the summer release The Rescuers was a bold step forward, highlighting the efforts of the young generation while providing the last of the old greats a chance to shine.
Then in November came Pete's Dragon, the first project ever made by Walt Disney Feature Animation without a single one of the Nine Old Men on board; it was entirely animated by the newbies, under the direction of the man who was then Disney's great white hope: 40-year-old Don Bluth, who'd served as supervising animator on The Rescuers and was the first of the new generation to really stake out a claim for both his talent and storytelling personality. And, infamously, the person who got so fed up with the bureaucratic bullshit, forcing him to keep cranking out uninteresting children's fare despite his anxious desire to return Disney animation to its glorious history, when everyone loved animation, that only a couple of years after this, he stormed out of the company, taking a healthy percentage of the animation staff to form his own studio, leaving The Fox and the Hound in a state of crisis.
The story did not end up happily for Bluth, who after a brief run of hits became divorced from both critics and audiences in the 1990s; but I've always held that he was in the right. It's not hard to see how shabbily he was treated during the production of Pete's Dragon: given hardly any time to finish his job, he and his animators (a small team including future giants Glen Keane, John Pomeroy, and Ron Clements) put in late nights and generally worked themselves into a frazzle to complete the 20-odd minutes of dragon animation in the finished feature, and doing a pretty great job of it: the dragon is limited by the cheapness of Disney animation at the time, but within those limits he is extraordinarily expressive, with a great personality that communicates everything absent from his vocabulary of incoherent grunts (provided by Charlie Callas).
For their pains, Bluth and the animators watched as most of the credit went to Ken Anderson, an excellent artist with more seniority than the rest of them, whose contribution consisted only of the dragon's design; despite its prominence in the film's marketing profile, the animation was otherwise an afterthought, and its the lack of support he experienced here that started Bluth's active discontent. All the more pity since the animation is much the best part of Pete's Dragon, a film not surfeited with great & timeless elements.
The film opens on a fairly beautiful oil painting of the early-20th Century Maine town where the action takes place (reminiscent in no little way of the paintings at the front of The Rescuers), and from there we land in the woods, where a young boy named Pete (Sean Marshall) is being swooped through the air on embarrassingly visible wires. He persists in calling these wires "Elliot", a sign no doubt of his insanity, the last holdover from the original treatment.
I know, I know, it's not fair to criticise a movie from 1977 for having unconvincing special effects. Those were simpler times, before the one-two punch of Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind forever raised the bar on realistic visual effects in the movie, and by "simpler times" I of course mean "boy, I'll bet the Disney filmmakers positively shat themselves when they went from watching the Pete's Dragon dailies over to seeing Star Wars looking all shiny and perfect in the movie theater".
It's still not fair to harp on it, except that the too-frequent shoddiness of the effects work in Pete's Dragon is emblematic of how unthinkingly cheap this production was, and how little Miller and the other Disney executives cared in 1977; to realise that Pete's Dragon opened all of two weeks before Close Encounters is to know just how far behind the ball Disney was playing in the '70s.
At any rate, Pete disembarks from Elliott, and hides in a log, and now we find that he is being chased by the ghastly Gogan family: father Merle (Charles Tyner) and grown sons Grover (Gary Morgan) and Willie (Jeff Conaway). They seem a bit more "cartoon Arkansas" than "New England" to me, but that doesn't matter. What matters is that they purchased the orphaned Pete, and have subjected him to no end of cruelty, and are now hunting him down for fear that they'll have to do the work around the farm themselves.
Right about now, we finally get our first good look at the dragon:
Oh, I'm teasing, everybody loves Shelley Winters! Sort of. I mean, I personally do not much love Shelley Winters at all - most of her films from the mid-'60s on, she pretty much just terrifies me, but at least that's appropriate for her character in this film, a wicked and nasty sort of woman who wants nothing more than to find Pete and punish him soundly for daring to defy her. This is the actual dragon:
Haha, I'm teasing again! But for real, Mickey Rooney is one of the few actors for whom I have a more instant, irrational dislike than Shelley Winters.
Which desire the Gogan's express in song, a rollicking number called "The Happiest Home in These Hills" which tells us right off that Pete's Dragon is going to be a rough go as a musical. Originally, it was to boast only one song, "Candle on the Water"; a tender love ballad by Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kasha, who'd earlier penned the unfortunately immortal "The Morning After" from The Poseidon Adventure. That song was so enthusiastically received by the Disney brass that Pete's Dragon was quickly retooled into a full-on musical, with no less than nine other songs joining "Candle on the Water" on the soundtrack. And while "Candle on the Water" is by no means a masterpiece - it was nominated for the Best Song Oscar, which should give you a clue as to how middling and dated it sounds - it's the only particularly memorable number in the whole thing, thanks mostly to Helen Reddy's dialed-to-11 performance. Yes, the best song in the film works mostly because of Helen Reddy. That is exactly how bad the soundtrack is.
I do not doubt that there are people in this world who can readily hum "The Happiest Home in These Hills", or the big production number "I Saw a Dragon", or the cartoon violence of "Every Little Piece", or the loopy playfulness of "Brazzle Dazzle Day" (the de rigeur "nonsense word" song that appears to have been necessary in all of Disney's live-action/animation hybrids). I am genuinely glad that these people have found a source of pleasure that I am resolutely unable to tap into; for myself, I found everything musical numbers in the movie, with the possible exception of the boy/dragon love song "Boo Bop Bop Bop Bop (I Love You, Too)"* to be a complete lifeless drag. Some of the choreography is fun; but a lot of it is clearly built around the actors' inability to dance in the normal sense of the word.
Moving along. The plot is not terribly surprising, nor difficult: Pete ends up in Passamaquoddy, a fishing town where he is taken in by the kindly lighthouse keeper Nora (Reddy), pining after a lost love, and her father Lampie, played by Mickey Rooney (I like to imagine that Lampie is a grown-up version of Lampwick from Pinocchio, having been somehow de-donkeyfied, particularly since Lampwick's voice already sounded like a parody of Rooney's). Pete and Elliot settle in to life in a small town, hoping against hope that the Gogans won't find him here, as the charlatan Doctor Terminus (Jim Dale) arrives from a low-rent production of The Music Man to sell all the Passamaquoddians his snake oil, and as more and more people start to come around to the idea that Pete's dragon fantasy isn't so crazy after all, Doc Terminus and his dippy henchman Hoagy (Red Buttons) decide to kidnap Elliott for his medicinal properties. Everybody ends up happy and then the filmmakers needlessly copy Mary Poppins, because that was the thing to do at Disney in 1977.
None of this is honestly all that awful, just pokey and predictable and juvenile in the most reductive, insulting way: despite the uncharacteristic high quality of The Rescuers, Disney's modus operandi at that time was very unambiguously to appeal to the children first and last, and hope that they weren't terribly demanding children, either. Compared to its obvious forebears, Mary Poppins and Bedknobs and Broomsticks, it suffers badly from having less interesting characters played worse by less likable actors: for a singer, Reddy is perfectly pleasing, with an anachronistic sassiness that could not possibly be more '70s (if Superman had already come out, I'd accuse Reddy of being a downmarket Margot Kidder knock-off), but gives the character some fullness anyway. Marshall is not an effortless child actor, and he fights a film-long losing battle with playing reaction shots to an invisible dragon, but the role must have been a damn nightmare to play, and he could have been infinitely worse - Bedknobs is proof enough of that. Everybody else... I'm done bagging on Winters and Rooney. But there's not much else to any of the characters to cling to, is all: they're stock figures in a stock story set in a stock location.
Where Pete's Dragon absolutely collapses is the visuals: despite Bluth and company's fine animation, the movie was rushed and tightly-budgeted, and it shows in some composite shots that are far behind Song of the South in 1946, let alone the state of the art in the age of Lucas and Spielberg.
Director Don Chaffey was doubtlessly chosen for his demonstrated skill with marrying live-action footage with effects shots - he was and is best-known for Jason and the Argonauts, that matinee masterpiece with Ray Harryhausen's most iconic effects - and there's a flexibility to the camera, a certain easiness to the practical effects, that works. If Pete's Dragon had remained entirely live-action (and if the songs had all been cut; they consistently drive any narrative momentum into the ground, something that Chaffey obviously couldn't help), it might have been mostly good, in a modest way: but the process shots look so unforgivably cheap, it destroys the film's reality completely. Watching Sean Marshall standing in front of an obvious composited backdrop as he unconvincingly interacts with a cartoon dragon is one of the more dispiriting things I have watched in my lifetime as a Disneyphile. All the more so since the ambition on display is so great, that the total failure to realise that ambition is all the more depressing.
Not precisely "forgotten" - indeed, by the standards of '70s Disney, it's among the best-known - the film nevertheless has little reputation; which is exactly how much reputation it deserves. Disney did a hell of a lot worse, before and after Pete's Dragon; but there's little positive reason to engage with it. Bluth aficionados and Reddy completists probably make up its only natural audience these days, and in the main it's only so much background noise: not charming enough to be entertaining, and assuredly not bad enough to be amusing. At the time of its creation, no movie had ever attempted to make such a prominent supporting character out of an animated figure, but this, easily the best theoretical reason to see the film, is undone by the dodgy, ugly results. It's a footnote in the studio's history, and nothing more, and I'll tell nobody to cry over that fate.