In August 2016, Disney will release its latest live-action “re-imagining” of one of its earlier films, the sentimental and sometimes misunderstood classic Disney movie, Pete’s Dragon (1977).
Walt Disney originally purchased the unpublished short story in 1957 as a possibility for his weekly television show.
The story was about a boy named Pete who for various reasons had trouble dealing with reality and so would escape into a fantasy world. It would be up to the audience to decide if the dragon was real or a figment of Pete’s imagination because like the rabbit in the play and the movie Harvey only the consequences of actions were seen along with a logical possible explanation.
After Walt’s death, the Disney Studio rustled through some of the projects that Walt had been considering including ones that had been earmarked for the weekly television show and developed some of them into feature films like The Aristocats (1970) and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971).
In 1975 co-producer Jerome Courtland asked screenwriter Malcolm Marmorstein to adapt a screenplay from the story. Marmostein would later write Disney’s Return from Witch Mountain (1978).
At the time, there was going to be one short scene with an animated dragon but the animators convinced Ron Miller, then President of Walt Disney Productions, that the audience would feel cheated to see a film called Pete’s Dragon and only briefly see the creature. They argued that it should be expanded into a film with a combination of live action and animation like many of the successful films that Disney had done in the past.
With the Sherman Brothers gone from the studio, Disney turned to Disney songwriters Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn to write a theme song for the film after their Oscar winning songs for the films The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974).
Cleverly, the pair wrote the song “Candle on the Water” as a tribute to their previous two Oscar winning songs, using the elements of water and fire (the candle) as “good luck”. When Disney management loved the song, they pitched that the film should be expanded into a musical and be the next Mary Poppins (1964).
During this process, the serious psychological tone of the original dissipated quickly although the final film still features child slavery, alcoholism, mourning for a lost love, the violence connected with superstition and more.
Disney Legend Ken Anderson joined the Disney Studios in 1934 and spent time as an animator, writer, art director and more including designing memorable characters like Shere Khan in The Jungle Book (1967). He also designed Elliott the dragon as his last contribution before his retirement in 1978.
In the April 7, 1978 issue of the Studio Newsreel (Vol. 7, No. 14), the internal newsletter of the Disney Studios, Ken stated, “I don’t know how I came up with Elliott. I like to think of him as an example of China’s concept of the dragon as a symbol of luck and good will which came to them when they need him. He just came to me and I sure needed him!”
Vance Gerry and Pete Young boarded sequences of Pete’s Dragon with Ken.
Animator and director Don Bluth returned to the Disney Studio in April 1971 as part of a new training program to create a “new Nine Old Men” team. He was promoted to full animation director on Pete’s Dragon (1977) although the Disney Studio emphasized Anderson in its publicity so many thought he directed the animation.
During this period at Disney, Don met and formed a friendship with Gary Goldman and John Pomeroy who both did significant character animation work on Elliott.
Other new animators who worked on the film included Ron Clements, Glen Keane, Randy Cartwright, Dale Baer, Ed Gombert and even Don Hahn as an assistant animator. A total of eighty people worked on the animation in some capacity that was painstakingly drawn over large single frame blow-ups of the completed live action scenes, the same process later used for Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988).
There are scenes in the film where up to three scenes were composited together. So, there might be a live foreground and live background but there is a middle level where Elliott was doing things. Delays in the live action shooting delayed Bluth and his team getting the material they needed in a timely fashion.
It was not unusual for Bluth and the rest of the key animators to regularly work a hundred hours per week during the production to meet the deadline. Animator Gary Goldman commented in a studio press release at the time, “I remember towards the end of PETE’S working until 10:00 at night. Not even janitors were here [at the Disney studio].” Instead of being paid overtime, they were given compensation time after the production finished.
Originally, the animators were to create roughly 900 feet of animation on a $1.8 million budget. However, when management saw the first completed animation, they were so impressed that they demanded twice as much animation footage with no increase in budget or extended deadline.
Adding to the challenge of meeting the deadline was Bluth’s insistence that many of the cels in the film, including Elliot’s stomach and outline in key scenes, be hand-inked rather than Xeroxed as was the norm at the time so that the artwork would blend more organically with the live action.
Bluth met the impossible deadline but was reprimanded for going $75,000 over the assigned budget. The final film showcases approximately twenty-two minutes of animation with Elliott.
When Bluth left the Disney Studios in 1979 with Goldman and Pomeroy and eight others, he expressed how this incident was the beginning of him starting to think that Disney was no longer committed to quality in animation in a brief interview in the Pasadena Star-News newspaper: “Card (Walker, Disney CEO) had made an impossible deadline because he had already booked the picture into Radio City Music Hall. We worked until 9:00 every night to get the picture finished. The artists got no raises, not even any thanks. Then they read that Card and Ron (Miller) split $3 billion in bonuses. ‘What is this?’ the artists asked. I had no answers.”
In 1978, Variety listing the top grossing films of the previous year had Pete’s Dragon as number seventeen. Its initial release brought in eighteen million dollars which provided a decent profit over its eleven million investment (roughly $4.5 million dollars more than Mary Poppins) and some nice reviews but Disney was highly disappointed because it was hoping for a Mary Poppins-sized blockbuster in terms of revenue.
As a result, the film was cut from its original 134 minutes to 129 minutes during its initial run. A reissue appeared in 1984 that was edited further to just 106 minutes. For recent video releases, the film has been restored to close to its original length.
The ebullient animated dragon and his comical interactions with the live actors (especially the vaudeville styled antics of Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons and Jim Dale) still touches hearts but it remains to be seen if his CGI doppelganger will have the same effect.