“A Dragon! A Dragon! I Swear I Saw a Dragon!” The Magic of Love in Pete’s Dragon

In a few days time, Disney is releasing a remake of the 1977 movie Pete’s Dragon. While it’s a stretch to call the original film a classic, it’s definitely endearing in its own clunky, inoffensive, cheerful way. I’ll be reviewing the remake, but before I line up to have my childhood plundered I wanted one last look at one of my all-time favorite movies.

Pete’s Dragon is one of the earliest movies I ever remember watching. I’ve been carrying the story around with me since I was a wee tot. The soundtrack has a hallowed spot on my iPod—in original film order, not the wonky order of the CD—and I can to this day sing every song by heart. I collect Pete’s Dragon sightings like some people collect figurines, meaning I’ve seen the Pushing Daisies episode a zillion times and squealed aloud while reading Joe Hill’s The Fireman when Harper started singing “Candle On the Water.” Whether or not it’s a good movie makes little difference to me. In my nostalgia-tinted mind, the 1977 version of Pete’s Dragon is absolutely perfect, warts and all.

For those who don’t know—and there are more of you than there really should be, given what a gem of a picture it is—Pete is an orphan kid abused by the Gogans. He escapes with the help of his sometimes invisible dragon, Elliott, and wanders into a seaside town in Maine. Due to a series of wacky Elliott-related mishaps, Pete ends up in the care of Nora, the daughter of a drunk lighthouse keeper who spends her evenings pining over the sailor who went to sea and never returned. Dr. Terminus and his “intern” Hoagy burst into town peddling their snake oil cures, and when word gets out that Pete has a dragon, they set out to acquire Elliott. Eventually they team up with the Gogans, who want Pete back, and the local fishermen, who blame Elliott for the sudden lack of fish. I won’t tell you the end, but it’s a Disney kids’ movie, so you can probably take an educated guess as to what happens.

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Unlike earlier live-action animated movies in which actors engaged with animated sets, Pete’s Dragon put the animated character, Elliott, in the live-action world, so the result is a total of three layers of film: a live layer, an animated layer, and a background layer covering the prop dragon and the green screen. Everything has that antique Disney feel, the kind where it’s not a specific year but a melange of old-fashioned Edwardian/Victorian, a world where there’s electricity and automobiles but people still use lanterns and horses.

Even in the late 1970s the cast wasn’t star-studded, but the actors were fairly well known. Mickey Rooney was still trying to turn around his career through TV and voice acting stints, while Red Buttons’ career was steady but not overwhelming. Jane Kean (Miss Taylor) and Jim Backus (the Mayor) brought decades of experience in television work to their characters while Charles Tyner (Merle Gogan) was known for lesser but important roles in movies like Harold and Maude and Cool Hand Luke. Jim Dale was well known across the pond, particularly with the Carry On series, but hadn’t done much of anything stateside. Shelley Winters had an Oscar under her belt, a name in the tabloids, and a long career as an actor and writer before stepping into the role of Lena Gogan. Helen Reddy was the musical “starlet,” having gained her fame a few years prior with “I Am Woman” and half a dozen other top ten singles. Sean Marshall (Pete) was a relative unknown and only acted for a few more years before retiring to a normal life. And hey, it’s Jeff Conaway before he got famous in Grease.

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Ok, so it’s not really a perfect movie. Even for 1977 it was awfully white. Last I counted, there were four, maybe five, people of color in the whole movie, all of whom were Black and appear for one song and two crowd scenes; only one gets a line. Not to mention the cringe-inducing, vaguely “Asian-sounding” riff when Terminus sings about making yens off Elliott’s body parts. Nora’s romance with Paul is a glaring plot device. He’s barely even a character and exists only to give Nora a dramatic backstory. Lampie’s alcoholism gets no explanation or resolution (and I hope someone paid that poor bartender after they destroyed all his beer in “I Saw a Dragon”). Whoever decided the California coast was an adequate replacement for Maine should have been fired. Director Don Chaffey is perfunctory at best, uninspired at worst, but I’ll give him this: he let his talent do what they did best without interference. Unfortunately, the cinematographer wastes Nora’s biggest moment, her solo “Candle on the Water,” by shooting the whole thing as a slow zoom in. That’s literally all that happens for three minutes.

But none of that mattered to me as a child because Helen Reddy was all I needed. The first time we see her is when she barges into the saloon looking, with an air of resignation, for her dad. The men manhandle and harass her and not only does she shake it off but then bests them at their own game. She defies gender stereotyping by kicking up her heels and wearing pants. Where Miss Taylor shrieks at losing her petticoat, Nora gleefully hoists up her skirt and dances on beer barrels. She turns social conventions on their head with wit and charm. Watching her convince Miss Taylor to give Pete an “education, education, education” is delightful as they circle each other with a sharp civility, and the fake smiles they offer each other is the icing on the cake. Nora is tough, resilient, and wise. I realize now how much I’ve modeled how I interact with children after her example. She treats Pete with respect while guiding him through difficult decisions in such a way that Pete learns from the experience. Even when she’s sarcastic she’s never hurtful or mean. She cares deeply and genuinely for those who deserve it and is ready to battle those who don’t.

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Despite the snarky comments it invites, Pete’s Dragon is cleverer than many people give it credit for. As much as the movie is smothered in a dense layer of wholesome Christian cheer, there’s also a fine coating of playful wit and talented acting. The character backgrounds are pretty dark for a technicolor musical. Pete is an orphan beaten and treated like a slave by his adoptive family. Lampie’s a raging alcoholic. Nora’s lover is lost as sea and she is forced to take care of her drunken father. Terminus and Hoagy are dangerous charlatans who get a thrill out of the thought of chopping up an animal. And the Gogans are vile, terrifying family who should never be allowed near anyone at all, much less a child.

Whatever failings the movie has overall, it makes up for them all with stellar choreography, production design, and casting. The choreography really gets the musical world and spreads into the extras. Matched with the set and costume design as well as divine acting choices, there’s a lot more going on than just some cheesy kids’ movie. There is real effort and thought put into the details. I started listing off some of my favorite little moments—Doc Terminus’ hat constantly smushing down his face, Lampie and Hoagy’s weird little facial expressions when they first meet Elliott, the clouds of dirt constantly swirling around the Gogans, “Candle on the Water,” Nora blasting the fog horn at the Doc and Hoagy, that dentistry contraption made out of a deconstructed sewing machine, “If’n you think you’re gonna hold her like my boys wanna hold her, you’re gonna be holding yer head!”—but gave up after they started to take over the whole article.

At its heart, Pete’s Dragon is a love story, or, more accurately, a story about love in all its dimensions. It’s worth noting that when Pete sings to Elliott that “you don’t turn away when I need protection,” a few songs later Nora sings to the Gogans “I’ll protect him as long as I’m alive!” Lena Gogan is the opposite of Nora in every way. Nora is love and lightness, a woman who loves deeply and truly without conditions or judgment. She plays along with Pete’s dragon talk because she believes he’s needs a friend so desperately he made one up. Lena sees Pete as a thing, an animal. She has no love in her for Pete, her husband, or her biological children. Any attention from her comes with strings and spite. The Gogans, Terminus, and Hoagy are the bad guys because they can’t comprehend love. The Gogans fail at familial love while Terminus and Hoagy fail at platonic and romantic love (Terminus makes a crack at meeting up with some girl in a private session and actively works to break apart Pete and Elliott’s friendship). Elliott offers Pete plenty of platonic love, but what a child really needs is the love of a parent. Nora has all three kinds of love in spades.

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Pete’s Dragon also explains my tastes in fantasy. Rather than wander around in fictional realms, I tend to prefer my magic with a realistic bent. The idea that magic is out there just around the corner, that it is a part of our world even if we don’t realize it, how cool is that? It can be used or abused, but that’s up to us. I didn’t hold much truck with imaginary friends as a kid, but if I had had an Elliott of my own I probably would’ve been a happier child, or at least a lot less lonely.

Despite what I said in the intro, no amount of unnecessary remakes can ever take away from me the original Pete’s Dragon. I love that movie as much as Pete loves Elliott and will live in my heart and soul until the day I die. It has helped shape my personality, interests, and interactions in countless ways. It was one of my earliest explorations of fantasy and never fails to put a smile on my face. In a cinematic era filled with dark and gritty remakes of well-worn properties, it’s nice to have something that’s, well, nice.

Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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