Building Entertainment: The Animated Films of the Walt Disney Studio. Partially-animated edition. Pete’s Dragon

Welcome to my weekly discussion of the animated films of the Walt Disney Studio. I’m proceeding mostly chronologically. We have finished the animated films and we’re moving on to the live-action and partially animated films. The title comes from a quote from Walt, “I never called my work an ‘art’ It’s part of show business, the business of building entertainment.”

Title: Pete’s Dragon

Year: 1977

Source materials: Pete’s Dragon and the U.S.A. (Forever After) that was written by Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field

Budget: $10 million

Box office: $36 million

Plot: Pete, riding on his invisible dragon Elliot, is running away from the Gogans. The Gogans are an abusive family of hillbillies who adopted Pete to have him work their farm. Elliot swings his tail knocking the Gogans into the mud. After they leave, Pete falls asleep in a log.


Pete and Elliott visit Passamaquoddy, where the unseen Elliott’s clumsiness causes Pete to be labeled a source of bad luck. Lampie, the lighthouse keeper, stumbles out of a tavern and encounters Pete. Elliott makes himself visible and a terrified Lampie runs into the saloon to warn the townsfolk.

In a seaside cave, Pete scolds Elliott for causing trouble. Lampie’s daughter, Nora, appears saying due to the ongoing tides from the sea, it is unsafe for Pete to stay in there, then offers him food and shelter at the lighthouse, which he accepts.


Pete tells Nora of the abuse he suffered at the hands of the Gogans, and as she offers to let him spend the night at the lighthouse, they strike up a friendship. He learns the story of her fiancé, Paul, whose ship was reported lost at sea the year before. He promises to ask Elliott about Paul, and she accepts, believing Elliott to be his imaginary friend.


Dr. Terminus and his assistant, Hoagy, arrive and win over the gullible townspeople who are initially angered by their return.

Nora takes Pete to start school, where he is punished unfairly by the teacher, Miss Taylor, as a result of Elliott’s antics. An enraged Elliott smashes into the schoolhouse, leaving his shape in the wall, as Pete runs off.


Nora and Lampie offer to let Pete live with them permanently, which he accepts. When the Gogans arrive in town and demand him back, Nora refuses to hand him over. As the Gogans attempt to chase them in a small boat, Elliott “torpedoes” it, saving Pete.


Dr. Terminus teams up with the Gogans to capture both Pete and Elliott. He also convinces the superstitious locals that helping him capture Elliott will solve their problems. That evening, a storm begins to blow.


At sea, a ship is approaching Passamaquoddy with Paul on board. Dr. Terminus and Hiagy lure Pete and Elliott to the boathouse. Once there, the invisible Elliott is caught in a net trap, but he frees himself, saves Pete, and confronts the Gogans. Lena yells at him, claiming Pete is their property and waves her bill of sale at him, which he torches. Now completely defenseless, they flee after he frightens them away.


Just as he and Pete laugh, Dr. Terminus makes one more effort to harpoon him, but his leg is caught in the rope and he is sent catapulting through the ceiling and screams as he goes through it, ending up dangling upside down near a utility pole.

Elliott then saves the Mayor, Miss Taylor, and the members of the Town Board from a falling utility pole, revealing himself to them. Back at the lighthouse, the lamp has been extinguished by a storm-driven rogue wave. Elliott returns and tries to light it with his own fire. As he does so, Nora sees that he is real. The light is ignited and the ship is saved.


The next morning, the Mayor and the townsfolk praise Elliott for his help, and Nora is reunited with Paul, who was the sole survivor of a shipwreck at Cape Hatteras and suffered amnesia. Now that Pete has a loving family, Elliott tells him he must move on to help another kid in trouble, and is sad that they must part. Pete comforts Elliott by telling him if that anyone can help that kid, he can. He then happily flies away as Pete and his new family wave good-bye to him.

Background: In December 1957, Walt Disney Productions optioned the film rights to the short story. Walt Disney had child actor Kevin Corcoran in mind to star in the project as a feature-length film. However, Disney was still unsure of how to approach the project, and the project was shelved. In 1975, producer Jerome Courtland re-discovered the project and hired writer Malcolm Marmorstein to write the script. Marmorstein named the dragon “Elliott” after actor Elliott Gould (who was a friend from his theater days), and named the town “Passamaquoddy” after the real Native American tribe in Maine.

The lighthouse for the film was built on Point Buchon Trail located south of Los Osos, California, substituting for Maine. It was equipped with such a large beacon that Disney had to get special permission from the Coast Guard to operate it, since doing so during filming would have confused passing ships.

Animation: The director of animation was Don Bluth. One technique used in the movie involved compositing with a yellowscreen that was originally used in Mary Poppins whereby up to three scenes might be overlaid together. Ken Anderson created Elliott, and Don Hahn was an assistant director later went on to work on Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Songs: The songs were written by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn


  • “The Happiest Home In These Hills”
  • “Boo Bop Bop Bop Bop (I Love You, Too)”
  • “I Saw A Dragon”
  • “It’s Not Easy”
  • “Passamaquoddy”
  • “Candle On The Water”
  • “There’s Room For Everyone”
  • “Every Little Piece”
  • “Brazzle Dazzle Day”
  • “Bill Of Sale”
  • “I Saw A Dragon (Reprise)”
  • “Brazzle Dazzle Day (Reprise)”


Sean Marshall as Pete. As a child actor, he appeared in The Deadly Trackers, The New Adventures of Heidi and the Disney animated short film The Small One. Marshall was a guest star in many of the popular series of his time including Kung Fu, Emergency!, Code R, The Carol Burnett Show and Tony Orlando and Dawn. Charlie Callas as the voice of Elliott. A popular stand up comedian, he worked with Mel Brooks on Silent Movie, High Anxiety, History of the World, Part I and Dracula: Dead and Loving It. He also appeared as Sinestro in Legends of the Superheroes.

Helen Reddy as Nora. She is best known for her song “I am Woman.” As an actor she appeared as a singing nun in Airport 75 and had guest roles on the series The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, The Jeffersons, Diagnosis: Murder and BeastMaster. Her Broadway and West End productions include Anything Goes, Call Me Madam, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and Blood Brothers. Mickey Rooney as Lampie. Started as one if the most successful chikd actors. He starred as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He played Andy Hardy in A Family Affair, and 13 more Andy Hardy films He co-starred in Boys Town. At 19 he was the first teenager to be nominated for an Oscar for his leading role in Babes in Arms, and he was awarded a special Academy Juvenile Award in 1939. Later films include Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Requiem for a Heavyweight, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, and The Black Stallion. He returned to Broadway in Sugar Babies and provided the voice of Santa Claus in four stop-motion animated Christmas TV specials: Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town, The Year Without a Santa Claus, Rudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July, and A Miser Brothers’ Christmas. In In 1983, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences gave Rooney their Academy Honorary Award for his lifetime of achievement.

Jim Dale as Dr. Terminus. He is most recognised as a leading actor on Broadway, where he had roles in Scapino, Barnum, 1 Candide and Me and My Girl, as well as for narrating all seven of the Harry Potter audiobooks in the American market, for which he received two Grammy Awards. As a lyricist, Dale was nominated for both an Academy Award and Golden Globe Award for the song “Georgy Girl.” He is also known for starring in the Carry On film series. Red Buttons as Hoagy. He won an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his supporting role in the 1957 film Sayonara. Other films include Hatari!, Five Weeks in a Balloon, The Longest Day, Harlow, The Poseidon Adventure, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, When Time Ran Out and 18 Again! Buttons also made guest appearances on several TV programs including The Eleventh Hour, Little House on the Prairie, It’s Garry Shandling’s Show, Knots Landing and Roseanne. His last TV role was in ER.

Shelley Winters as Lena Gogan. She won Academy Awards for The Diary of Anne Frank and A Patch of Blue, and received nominations for A Place in the Sun and The Poseidon Adventure. Her many roles include A Double Life, The Night of the Hunter, Lolita, and Alfie. She was also the voice of Crystal in Frosty’s Winter Wonderland andRudolph and Frosty’s Christmas in July. Charles Tyner as Merle Gogan. He appeared on Broadway in Orpheus Descending and Sweet Bird of Youth. Films include Cool Hand Luke, The Reivers, Lawman, Harold and Maude, The Cowboys, Emperor of the North Pole. The Longest Yard and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.

Jane Kean as Miss Taylor. Among her most famous roles were as Trixie Norton on The Honeymooners and as the voice of Belle in Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol. Other credits included appearances on The Phil Silvers Show, Make Room for Daddy, The Lucy Show, Love, American Style, The Love Boat, The Facts of Life and Dallas. Jim Backus as the Mayor of Passamaquoddy. Among his most famous roles were the voice of Mr. Magoo, James Dean’s character’s father in Rebel Without a Cause, and Thurston Howell III, on Gilligan’s Island. He also appeared in A Dangerous Profession, Deadline – U.S.A., Pat and Mike, The Pied Piper of Hamelin, and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Gary Morgan as Grover Gogan. He had roles on television series, including Naked City, The Partridge Family, Adam-12, and Happy Days. Feature films include The Night God Screamed, Fuzz, Summer School Teachers, Logan’s Run, Matilda, The North Avenue Irregulars, The Final Countdown, The Devil and Max Devlin, and Outrageous Fortune. He has done extensive stunt work, including appearances in Cujo, Batman Forever, and The Muppets. Jeff Conaway as Willie Gogan. He isknown for playing Kenickie in the movie Grease and for his roles in Taxi and Babylon 5. He made guest appearances on such shows as Barnaby Jones, George & Leo and Murder, She Wrote. He appeared in films such as Jawbreaker, Elvira, Mistress of the Dark and Do You Wanna Know a Secret?

Critical Reception:

  • Janet Maslin of The New York Times praised the film declaring it “the most energetic and enjoyable Disney movie in a long while.” She was also complimentary of Helen Reddy’s performance noting “Sean Marshall doesn’t sing well, but Helen Reddy does, so she often accompanies his vocals. Miss Reddy is serviceable but undistinguished as an actress—she has a tendency to behave as if she were a very bright light bulb in a very small lamp—but she so often finds herself in the company of Messrs. Rooney, Dale or Buttons that her scenes work well.”
  • Variety wrote the film was “an enchanting and humane fable which introduces a most lovable animal star (albeit an animated one).” They praised the combination of live-action and animation as “never before more effectively realized” and commented that the film suffered “whenever Elliott is off screen.”
  • John Skow of Time wrote the film was “likeable fantasy”, but dismissed the musical numbers as “a good opportunity to line up for more popcorn.”
  • Charles Champlin of the Los Angeles Times wrote, “At 2 hours 7 minutes it is a trying span for small sitters. The animated excitements keep stopping for songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn, but they are not showstoppers in the grand sense. Bland, perfunctory and too numerous is more like it.”
  • Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune gave the film two stars out of four and wrote that “we get the same tired Disney formula: a gooey-faced kid in a phony sound-stage world populated by old actors required to perform ancient vaudeville routines … Compared to the great Disney animation classics, ‘Pete’s Dragon’ is just TV fare on the wide screen.”
  • Gary Arnold of The Washington Post wrote that the film “was apparently meant to be a big, rousing musical comedy-fantasy, but it’s staged and photographed without musical-comedy energy, flair or coordination … Perhaps children can be counted on to enjoy Elliott’s mugging and the slapstick interludes that occasionally interrupt the tedium, but parents will see this one more as a chore.”


Legacy: Pete and Elliott were a float in The Main Street Electrical Parade. The film was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Original Song – Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn for “Candle on the Water” and Original Song Score – Al Kasha, Joel Hirschhorn and Irwin Kostal.


In 2016, the studio released a non musical remake starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, and Robert Redford.

My take: I loved this movie when I was a kid. I had the album. I also have a personal connection to the film. In high school, I was involved in a youth show choir with our community theatre. We did a Disney medley, and the song “Candle on the Water” was our big group ballad. So it gives me all the feels. Also Jim Dale and Red Buttons. I mean…

Next Week: The Cat From Outer Space