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IT’S NOT EASY TO FIND SOMEONE WHO CARES: Guardian angels in Pete’s Dragon (1977)

On November 1st, 1977, the 2060 Chiron, a small Solar System body was discovered by astronomer Charlie Kowal. Classified as a “minor planet”, these bodies would orbit between the asteroid belt and the Kulper belt and would be known as centaurs (named after the Greek mythological creature) living within the outer Solar System as an energetic guiding force. Disney’s Pete’s Dragon (1977), released only two days after this astronomical discovery, would also embody lyrical and poetic themes detailing ethereal guidance, but here, in the guise of a loveable mugging and clucking dragon named Elliot who would prove to be a Christ-like figure for a lonely orphan struggling to find a place and most importantly a home. 

The film opens with a beautiful instrumental medley of the songs that we will soon come to know as the camera steadily drifts across an oil painting of a town called Passamaquoddy, and through this picturesque introduction, we are welcomed into a distinctly different period of the studio’s output. Pete’s Dragon is far from the “golden age of Disney”, but it is still as charming, tender, and as captivating as earlier live-action/animation hybrids such as Mary Poppins (1964). It borrows from Mary Poppins in that it tells the tale of a messianic-figure and his soon-to-be enlightened, and this incurably romantic film does so with such majesty and beauty that it is a joy to watch. Pete’s Dragon is a sweet parable about friendship and the importance of family. Despite some minor narrative hiccups, it is a thorough delight. 

The idea of animated characters and humans sharing screen time is definitely not new by the time 1977 hits  (remember Disney’s Bedknobs and Broomsticks hosted some of the greatest examples of that ever put to screen earlier in the decade back in 1971), but by the late 1970s, this was a skill Disney animators had developed to perfection: Elliot the dragon is such a wonderful creation that at times you forget that he is only a number of animation cells interacting with the gifted Sean Marshall, who plays Pete. Elliot feels like a living, breathing dragon, and with his unintelligible mutterings and cute, expressive face, he is the epitome of a lonely child’s best friend. 

Animator Don Bluth was in charge of the team who would create Elliot, and Bluth’s tender touch and flair for elegance fuels this beautiful character with such precision that we are left to wish the loveable creature had much more screen time. Bluth would leave Disney after the completion of Pete’s Dragon and then finish up with the company once he completed his work on the Christmas-themed short Small One (1978) – another piece dedicated to the love a child has for a creature, this time being a donkey destined for great things. Bluth would take a team of animators with him to create his own company that would later do odd jobs for filmmakers which included delivering animated sequences for films such as Xanadu (1980), and rich, full length features like Anastasia (1997). Pete’s Dragon was a perfect launchpad for Bluth to pave his own way beyond Disney. 

The opening musical number in Pete’s Dragon belongs to the film’s first set of villains (an unusual approach) and that is “The Happiest Home in These Hills”, a delightfully demented piece of song writing by the talented Al Kasher. Both the melody and the internal rhymes are intoxicating. The fabulous Shelley Winters leads a crew of hick mountain people who are after Pete, and are presented as gleefully grotesque. When they end up in the mud, it adds to their ghoulishness rendering these people as subhuman. There is nothing glossed over or overtly sugary or safe in Pete’s Dragon, thankfully, as children’s films during the seventies did not seem to pander to over-sensitive, highly strung parents wanting to protect their offspring from what they deemed “unsuitable”.  During the decade, in terms of screen culture, children were allowed to be threatened, and not kept out of danger’s way. Winters and her family of crooks are scary, descendants in a way of The Child Catcher from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968). They are unrelenting, without pathos and hell bent on capturing innocent children for their own benefit. A few years later, children are mercilessly chased and tormented by adults in other musicals such as Ginger Meggs and Annie (both based on comic strips and both from 1982). 

The second song in Pete’s Dragon is “Bop Bop Bop Bop Bop (I Love You Too)”, a whimsical and charming number with a strong pop sensibility. Elliot is a beautiful companion for young Pete, but he is more than that: he is the embodiment of Pete’s confidence and representative of how Pete can relate to the outside world. Pete insists on Elliot’s invisibility not only out of fear of what the townsfolk of Passamaquoddy would think but in response to his own insecurity as a child lost without parent figures. The loneliness of childhood and the longing for family and self-empowerment is examined in Pete’s Dragon, at the cusp of a number of other films that would be released about little boys with absentee fathers (E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial (1982) being one of the most successful).

But the seventies featured a number of movie musicals that focused on isolated and lonely children who learn to love. These young people discover how to be true to themselves through a magical force, often embodied by loving guardian angels or other best friends that vary in shape and form. In Charlotte’s Web (1973) for example, the sensitive Fern finds solace in her pet pig Wilbur. In Raggedy Ann and Andy: A Musical Adventure (1977) the little girl is lost without her enchanted toys, a theme that recurs again in The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh (also from 1977), where Christopher Robin is alienated from child peers but finds companionship with his loving stuffed toy animals. Sean Marshall in Pete’s Dragon embodies this lonely and imaginative child figure, a staple character in seventies cinema across genres. Pete is delicate, sensitive, and aware of his surroundings. He longs for warmth and acceptance, which he finds in Elliot the dragon but soon discovers it in the very real loving embrace of warm but lonely Nora (Helen Reddy) and her loveable alcoholic father Lampie (Mickey Rooney). 

The film constantly reminds us that Elliot is possibly not real, and rather an extension of Pete’s alienation and determination to find a home. When Elliot finally appears before the other characters, it is the film’s way of telling us that Pete is an honest little boy and that his dragon can enlighten and touch the lives of everyone as long as they have faith. This notion of believing in yourself and in the importance of magic slowly resurfaces as the years go by in musicals and non-musicals, rendering the “age of not believing” that Angela Lansbury lamented in Bedknobs and Broomsticks as distinctly a past tense. 

Performance-wise, Pete’s Dragon showcases some great work both on and off-screen, but the screenplay sometimes gets bogged down with repetition. This impedes character development to some degree, in what is otherwise almost a perfect and quaint film. Mickey Rooney’s Lampie is a delight, and his youthful exuberance is fun to watch: this diminutive show business icon with gigantic talent is as dynamic as he ever was in the Arthur Freed musicals of the 1940s. Onna White’s choreography is charged with excitement and finesse, and while nowhere near as elegant or dynamic as her magnificent work in Oliver! (1968), big stagy numbers like “I Saw A Dragon” are a highlight, taking place in a tavern filled with booze-downing Seabees, climaxing with exploding beer kegs. Helen Reddy as the haunted Nora is as earthy and as lovely as Sherry Miles was as Nancy in Oliver!, but unfortunately the writing leaves her little room for nuance.

Nora is a lonely woman who mans the lighthouse with her dotty father – she is a nurturing, diligent woman. But her character is not allowed to blossom into something vibrant, a problem with the writing and not in Reddy’s otherwise excellent performance. Although a singer, Reddy is a more than competent actress, and her vocal work in the film is outstanding, so it is sad that this potentially excellent character is given the short end of the stick in terms of her growth and the dynamics of her story arc. This is even more unfortunate because Nora ultimately runs the show, but instead of being a multi-dimensional protagonist, she is saddled as the pragmatic workhorse. Homeliness is a tricky characteristic to satisfactorily capture in Disney features, but even the maids in Mary Poppins had a kind of pizazz and brightness to them. Sadly for Reddy and her soothing, warm voice, she is given a very ordinary role. 

The sombre tone of the situation Nora finds herself in still compliments the moroseness of the part, however, and her longing to be loved is beautifully paralleled with Pete’s. This is apparent with the song “It’s Not Easy”, a masterfully handled number that is staged so simply, yet provides tender insight into both Nora and Pete. Here are two people who have found each other, and here in the lighthouse – a building used to lead ships to shore, reuniting the sea bound with the land – these two isolated characters come to understand that life and love are most certainly “not easy”. When Pete describes what his dragon Elliot looks like (“He has the head of a camel, the neck of a crocodile”), Nora takes it with playful acceptance, as she recognises the child’s friendship with the mythical beast because of her own desire to hold onto something out of reach and as intangible. The lyrics are charming and work on a number of levels, as Nora sings “Now that you have him, hold him, treasure him from day to day”. While singing about this supposedly fabricated dragon, she is also lamenting her own personal angel, her absentee lover, a sailor believed to be missing at sea. Later in the film, Lampie scolds Nora for not “being realistic” about her dreams of reuniting with her lost man, reminding us of the film’s determination to examine the blurring of reality and fantasy.

Although Elliot does materialize for Nora and Lampie to physically see, the idea of these two jaded adults coming to accept Elliot is about a lot more than their discovery that Pete was telling the truth all along. Instead, Nora and Lampie now have the things they’ve been longing for, companionship and clarity: through Pete, Nora has her seafaring beau and Lampie has stopped drinking. Elliot represents these things and is the catalyst to the beginning of believing. 

Along with Shelley Winters and her family of cretins who want to use Pete as a slave, the secondary villains of the film are the showbiz charlatans who peddle phony remedies. These two are straight from vaudeville, human realizations of Pinocchio’s bestial theatrical villains Honest John the Fox and Gideon the Cat in that they play out a dominant and submissive role through camp slapstick. These characters are a major problem in the film, as two sets of villains is completely unnecessary, especially when Shelley Winters and her crew are so delectably evil in the opening number.

These secondary villains (secondary only in the order of appearance and not in screen time as they come to dominate the film) mean Winters and her crew recede off-screen- until late in the picture, leaving the screen time for villains who are not nearly as interesting or as horrific. Jim Dale and Red Buttons play these crooks who peddle phony elixirs and the like with energy and exuberance, and once they hear talk of a dragon they wish to capture and use his body parts to capitalize on. Their performances are humorous and busy, but ultimately uncalled for. Although they get terrific songs like “Every Little Piece” (highlighting what dragon ears, eyes and so forth can do for humans with perpetual ailments) and “Passamaquoddy” (showcasing their knowledge of fictional and not-so-fictional towns), they are a distraction and a lazy attempt at unnecessary comic relief. As great as Dale and Buttons are, their characters are not as creepy or as menacing as Shelley Winters and company. Although the Winters role is small, her presence is overwhelming as she wickedly grins with a repugnant set of rotten teeth and soiled round cheeks.

Comedy is muted in Pete’s Dragon, and is not specific to the mugging madness of Winters and company. However, the film’s quiet, solemn moments are mostly its strength. The sombre conversation about “being realistic” between Rooney and Reddy culminates in the elegant (but far from perfect) song “Candle on the Water”, performed with tenderness and heart and became a hit song in its own right. Sadly, the flat direction of the number undervalues its message so it feels like an uninspired music video, unfortunate when so many possibilities remained unexplored. Much like “Cheer Up Charlie” (the forever – and unfairly – bemoaned song from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)), a different take on “Candle on the Water” could have proved beneficial. Perhaps instead of the stable shot of Nora standing at the lighthouse rafter, she could have been filmed climbing the tower and reaching the top, looking out to the sea – this surely could have provided a more thematically appropriate and far more uplifting and momentous ending. Nora gets most of the songs and one of the best is “There’s Room For Everyone”, which comes right after the fishermen declare that Pete is a jinx and bad luck. This upsets the maternal and nurturing Nora, and she sings that “there’s room for everyone in this world” (even dragons). This is indicative of the seventies sensibility regarding inclusion. What Nora is really saying is that there is room for everyone: blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics, gays, straights, the poor, the wealthy, etc. Pete’s Dragon is the most socially aware Disney film of the seventies as it talks about acceptance and family-building. It also embraces the simple things in life, celebrated in the spirited, beautifully shot number “Brazzle Dazzle Day”. Reddy, Rooney and Marshall clean the lighthouse and parade around cheerily, singing about simple joys like running through a meadow barefoot and so forth. The number is significantly the first song that is not antagonistic, does not serve the plot explicitly, is happy and not maudlin and – most importantly – it doesn’t mention Elliot the dragon. Here, young Pete has found a home – a real mother and a real grandfather, and as the film moves forward, he will soon also find a father in Paul (Carl Bartlett) who is rescued by Elliot and reunited with his beloved Nora. 

The most moving moment in the film is where Elliot has to say goodbye to Pete. This scene saw children and adults alike wiping their teary eyes with sweet surrender. As a Christ-figure, Elliott has to metaphorically die (which he does when he is symbolically captured and made redundant) and then resurrect (when he returns as a hero to save the entire town). He also has to move on and enlighten future generations, and in this film’s case those generations are the child audiences that will follow. When Elliot farewells Pete, he is continuing his beautiful and important work that assists children in growing up into happy souls, free from unease and potential abuse, free from isolation and most importantly, free of the threat of growing up too fast. Elliot celebrates the importance of being a child, and this is the film’s most powerful and poignant element.

These thematic concerns will be revived again in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial where little Henry Thomas as Elliot says “Ouch”, touches his heart and then bids farewell to his alien messiah who ascends to the heavens leaving his new disciple empowered and enlightened.   Of all the elements that link the film to the specific experience of childhood, it is Pete’s insistence that Elliot remains invisible. He says this at the start of the film when the duo is trying to hide from Shelley Winters, and again at the end when Elliot flies off to help another child. This is an important, subversive message, underscoring the fact that childhood wonderment, innocence, and “pure imagination” is personal and comes from within. It is a sanctum of secrecy and wishes, a place only little kids can see, hear, and feel. Just as Elliot in E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial explains to his younger sister Gertie (Drew Barrymore) in reference to their new alien friend who hides in their closet surrounded by their stuffed toys: “Only little kids can see him”. Pete’s Dragon lets us know that the most important magic is that which is unseen and unfelt by the jaded and morally bankrupt adult world, and only grown-ups kind-hearted enough to let child-like bewilderment and beauty in will be allowed to “see” and experience this magic.

For more essays on seventies movie musicals such as this one, check out Lee Gambin’s book WE CAN BE WHO WE ARE: MOVIE MUSICALS FROM THE 1970s available at Amazon

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About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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