Pete’s Dragon (1977)


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With Disney’s onslaught of live-action remakes of their previous films comes the announcement of a remake of their 1977 film, Pete’s Dragon. While the original was a musical, the remake is set to be a regular film with stars such as Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford. The film is set to be released next year, so while we await it, it seems proper to review the original film first.

So, let’s sit back and take a look at this film and see if Pete’s Dragon is any good and worthy to be remade or if it’s not good at all, hence worthy of being remade.

And remember, SPOILERS AHEAD!

The film opens up to a young boy, Pete, played by Sean Marshall, running away in the woods…or more appropriately, levitating away?

So, this is how Anakin Sywalker started!
So, this is how Anakin Sywalker started practicing the Force!

No, Pete isn’t really levitating. He’s actually riding his invisible dragon friend, Elliott. Elliott has the power to show himself or be invisible. He was originally supposed to never be shown a la Jimmy Stewart’s Harvey, but this was later changed.

I guess this face was too darn adorable to conceal!
I guess this face was too darn adorable to conceal!

Pete and Elliott are running away from Pete’s adoptive abusive family, the Gogans. The Gogans are your typical hillbilly family played by Shelley Winters, Charles Tyner, Gary Morgan, and Jeff Conaway.

Guess which one acted in the sitcom, Taxi?
Guess which one acted in the sitcom, Taxi?

As they search for Pete, they try to entice him to come back home (and be their slave, pretty much) via a song, The Happiest Home in These Hills. And here we come to my first major complaint about this movie. It’s a musical and to be honest, the majority of these songs just don’t cut it for me. I find the majority of them very forgettable and with very weird melodies/rhyming patterns. Yes, there are one or two songs that are good or tolerable, but as a musical, I think this movie really fails.

Anyway, Pete and Elliott manage to get away from the Gogans and head to a nearby town named Passamaquoddy.

"Much better than the towns of Murder, Stick-Up, and Health Food that we passed along the way."
“Much better than the towns of Murder, Stick-Up, and Health Food that we passed along the way.”

It’s your average fishing town, but Elliott’s size turns out to be a bit of a problem causing him to wreck stuff around the town. He, of course, has to make himself invisible when entering the town, so the townsfolk only see Pete and assume that all the damage is his fault.

The townsfolk run after Pete, but Pete manages to hide behind some crates. Elliott temporarily manifests himself and Pete gives him a good talking-to. It’s there that we come into contact with a lighthouse keeper with a passion for drink, Lampie, played by Mickey Rooney. He bumps into Pete and befriends him, but once he sees Elliott, he’s absolutely terrified. He heads into the tavern warning the patrons there about what he saw in one of the few songs in this movie that I like, I Saw a Dragon.

Not to mention that it has some awesome choreography!
Not to mention that it has some awesome choreography!

But, of course, the patrons shrug this off as just another hallucination that Lampie has seen due to his inebriation. Even his daughter, Nora, played by Helen Reddy, doesn’t pay much mind to his words. She takes her father home to the lighthouse and puts him to bed. She then notices Pete hanging around in a cave near the shore and invites him to come up to the lighthouse for some food. He agrees and tells Elliott to stay in the cave.

At the lighthouse, Pete starts telling Nora about his life with the Gogans, running away, and his dragon (who Nora, of course, thinks is imaginary). She feels sympathy for him and lets him spend the night.

The next day, Passamaquoddy is visited by a quack doctor and his stooge. Doc Terminus, played by Jim Dale, and his stooge, Hoagy, played by Red Buttons, travel from town to town selling phony potions to unsuspecting townspeople. They’ve arrived in Passamaquoddy after being chased out of another town. Doc Terminus recognizes Passamaquoddy as a town that he’s been to before (and been thrown out of before) and he tries to get on the townsfolk’s good side by singing a song about their town. Sadly, he can never get the town’s name correct.

It could have been worse. He could have been in the Welsh village of Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch.
It could have been worse. He could have been in the Welsh village of Llanfair­pwllgwyngyll­gogery­chwyrn­drobwll­llan­tysilio­gogo­goch.

Later that night, Nora sings what is no doubt, the best song in the film, Candle on the Water, at her lighthouse. The song was nominated for an Academy Award and was actually the only song written for the movie before they decided to make it a full-out musical. If they had kept this as the only song, I feel the film would have been much better.

Anyway, what’s the song about? Nora’s beloved Paul went out to sea over a year ago and has since not returned. It’s assumed that he’s dead, but Nora still has a lingering grasp of hope (or maybe just desire) that Paul’s alive. So the song is about how she’ll always be there for Paul, guiding him back if he ever needs it…I think.

Pete finds out about Paul and asks Elliott if he can go find Paul to make Nora happy again as gratitude for treating Pete so kindly. Speaking of the dragon, Doc Terminus soon hears news about Pete’s so-called dragon. He, of course, pooh-poohs it, but becomes a believer when Elliott makes an impression at the schoolhouse.

And what an impression!
And what an impression!

The quack doctor then gets an idea that if he can get his hands on Elliott, he can make a lot of money from his dragon parts. Doc Terminus offers to buy Elliott from Pete, but Pete can’t sell Elliott since he doesn’t really own him. Taking this as a refusal to sell, Doc Terminus then decides to capture the dragon. He gets a lot of the townsfolk to help him (since they don’t like this supposedly fictional dragon anyway) as well as the Gogans who have arrived in town looking for Pete.

They capture Pete and use him as bait to lure Elliott into a boathouse rigged with a trap. This angers Elliott and he finally becomes apparent to all of the townsfolk. He manages to save Pete, send the Gogans on their way, take care of Doc Terminus and Hoagy for good, and even use his fiery breath to light the lighthouse and guide a ship in that’s about to crash on the rocks.

Who’s on this ship? Well, it’s Paul! Yep, Elliott managed to find Paul who crashed somewhere and lost his memory. With a helpful nudge from Elliott, Paul regained his memory, headed back home, and reunited himself with Nora.


"Guilty as charged!"
“Guilty as charged!”

The movie ends with the townspeople finally accepting Pete and Elliott in their town, Pete being adopted by Lampie and Nora, and Elliott leaving Pete because he says there are other kids in the world who need his help. Elliott like the dragon version of Mary Poppins?
Wait…is Elliott like the dragon version of Mary Poppins?

And that was Pete’s Dragon. And…it could have been a lot better.

There are two big problems that I have with this film. One of them is that there are many aspects of the plot that are not explained to us which makes the film more complicated to understand. For example, how exactly did Elliott find Pete? Is Elliott from a society of dragons that go about helping/befriending enslaved kids? How did the Gogans come to own Pete in the first place? I feel that had these questions been answered, the film would have made a lot more sense.

The other big problem, like I said before, was that I think this film fails as a musical. With the exception of Candle on the Water and maybe one or two more songs, the rest are just plain forgettable. I didn’t even mention most of the songs that appear in this film including the stereotypical acceptance song, There’s Room for Everyone, the greedy villain song, Every Little Piece, a random song about happiness or something like that, Brazzle Dazzle Day, and even a song about a receipt, Bill of Sale.

Yeah, there's a song about a receipt. To top things off, the hillbillies are the ones who sing it.
Yeah, there’s a song about a receipt. To top things off, the hillbillies are the ones who sing it.

Other than that, the acting was great with comedy legends like Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, and even Jim Backus (in a cameo appearance) entertaining us as well as they do. Jim Dale does a great job as the conniving quack doctor. I’m also very pleased with Sean Marshall’s performance as well as Helen Reddy’s.

The effects are the classic Disney effects we expect to see when blending live-action with animation. It’s not dated and meshes perfectly with the rest of the film.

Sadly, the bad of this movie outweighs the good. So, I for one, am hoping that the upcoming remake can fix the problems that this movie creates and not being a musical is a good place to start!

(You can click on the image below for an enlarged version of my rating sheet.)


So, the final score for this film is 21/35 = 60% (D-) !

The next review will be posted on July 20th.

18 thoughts on “Pete’s Dragon (1977)

  1. The part why the Gogans “own” Pete is actually explained in the movie…in the very first scene mom Gogan explains to her sons that she adopted him from the orphanage and that she can’t cough up the money for another adoption. The movie naturally glosses over the fact that it was a very common practice in the US back then, a lot of orphan’s were “adopted” as cheap labour and held practically like slaves during their childhood. But it’s Disney, I think the basic why the Gogans are so set on getting Pete back and that they have some right to him is more than enough you need to know.

    I love this movie…to be precise, I love the German cut of the movie. Which took great care to shorten the songs, so none of them overstay their welcome (most of them have one sequence less and Happiest Home in the Hills is missing completely…I don’t dislike the song but it doesn’t really add anything to the plot…as is the “Candle on the Water” scene which I think is really awful. Honestly, who thought that it was a good idea to spend a whole song sequence just panning over Nora standing on the lighthouse? It slows the movie down. Instead the song replaces the instrumental at the start of the movie, which is, imho, a better placement of it). The German version is nearly half an hour shorter, btw.

    There are also some additional benefits to the script…like the lack of the amnesia explanation. Paul just went missing for one year and is now on the way back. And more is not really needed, because lets face it, the only thing Paul does is to provide some emotional investment for the “rescue the ship” scene in the end. If he was stranded somewhere or lay in the hospital, who cares?

    And call me crazy, but I love the Bill of Sale song…mmm….I think the German versions of the songs are all better. Every single one of them. I can’t put my finger on it why this is the case, but it just is. Perhaps because it is shorter, so it doesn’t overstay it’s welcome, and the ending is fairly memorable:

    I really like Pete’s Dragon. And even acknowledging all its faults, especially in the English version, I think a D- is really harsh. Most of the actors do a good, some even an excellent job, Elliot is very likable, it has a really griping finale (honestly, it goes from Pete getting kidnapped to Dr. Terminus trying to kill Eliot, to the storm trying to kill random council members to the whole scenario at the light house which always had me on the edge of my seat without any explosions), and as you said yourself, the effects hold up very, very well.

    I would give it at least a C for the English version, the German one deserves a B-

    Concerning the remake…I don’t want one. I want a kind of sequel. I mean the first movie establishes Eliot as a protector of children in the need of help (again, the movie is really clear about that point, we don’t need to know anything more), so why not showing Eliot helping another child? Perhaps even in modern times.

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      I’ve watched various German versions of some of the songs and that alone has me agreeing with you that the German version of this movie is so much better!

      I guess my feelings of this movie are like the Nostalgia Critic’s: I want to like it, but I just can’t like it. It does have a lot going for it, but it just doesn’t take it there for me.

  2. I agree with you on this one. I think Candle on the Water is a great song (one of my favorite in live action Disney) but the rest are kind of forgettable. I might give it a C because I feel it is average. This is one remake I am looking forward too and feel they could improve upon the original.

      1. I find that strange but whatever works for you. I would say this is average and for me that’s a C.

      2. It’s your blog so give it whatever grade you want. That’s why I personally dont like a rubric. But whatever works for you

  3. I’m actually not sure I’ve ever watched this one. I probably will eventually just because I do fall into that category of “Disney fans who want to be able to say they’ve seen every Disney film” 😉

  4. Part of me is largely curious to see Pete’s Dragon for myself, despite knowing that it’s a tad too corny and not that good overall. If I do see it, I hope I enjoy it. With that said, if the upcoming remake improves on the original, I think if its successful it would encourage more remakes of obscure Disney properties (which I would prefer over their revisits to their established classics).

      1. With Jurassic World’s unexpected financial success, I wonder if Disney will catch the dinosaur fever as well and redo “Baby: Secret of the Lost Legend”, which if handled with great care, and less clunky animatronics, could become a personal favorite of mine – I’m a sucker for a good dinosaur movie.

      2. Fair enough; if it’s part of the Touchstone brand I doubt you’d be tempted to cover it. Although I do hope you’d give The Rocketeer a shot some time, it’s a fantastic film and recently released by Disney on Blu-ray! 🙂

      3. Yeah, I’m thinking about The Rocketeer. It depends if it’s originally a Touchstone release or not. Because I’ve heard that it was a Touchstone release originally, then Disney changed it to the Disney brand to get more viewers. But, I’ve also heard the opposite as well.

        So, if it was originally a Touchstone film, I won’t be doing it.

  5. I watched this film a lot when I was a kid, and I still love it now. It works fine as a musical for me, and while certain plot elements could have been better explained, what’s given is fairly solid, as far as I’m concerned.

    That being said, I have to agree with swanpride that a D- is a bit too harsh. I, personally, would give it either a C+ or a straight B.

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