Forty years ago, on November 3, 1977, Pete's Dragon was released in theaters across America. Though it was a box office disappointment at the time, it has since turned into a beloved classic for the generations of audiences who grew up with Pete and Elliott. In honor of its 40th anniversary, check out these brazzle-dazzle facts about the Disney classic.
1. ELLIOTT WAS VOICED BY VETERAN ACTOR CHARLIE CALLAS.
Charlie Callas was a comedian known for his rubbery face long before Jim Carrey was around.
2. IT WAS HELEN REDDY’S FIRST LEADING ROLE IN A FILM.
You’d assume that working with an invisible dragon would be pretty challenging for anyone, let alone someone new to the film industry, but Helen Reddy enjoyed the experience. “I only had one actual scene with the dragon," she explained, "and during rehearsals I worked with a latex model of his head so that I would be familiar with the dimensions during filming.”
3. REDDY’S BALLAD IN THE MOVIE WAS NOMINATED FOR AN OSCAR.
Reddy's "Candle on the Water" was nominated for Best Original Song. It lost to “You Light Up My Life.”
4. DON BLUTH SUPERVISED ELLIOTT'S ANIMATION.
The project notoriously called for a lot of overtime hours, and a couple of years after Pete's Dragon was released, animator Don Bluth left Disney. He went on to animate and direct The Secret of NIMH (1982), An American Tail (1986), The Land Before Time (1988), and All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989), among others.
5. CALIFORNIA DOUBLED FOR MAINE.
The movie may look like it takes place in Maine, but neither the cast nor crew went anywhere near the Pine Tree State. The landscape scenes were courtesy of Disney’s Golden Oak Ranch in Canyon Country, California, while the Passamaquoddy town square and wharf area was constructed on the Disney Burbank Studio lot, partly from an old Western set. Even the harbor was constructed on-set.
6. ACTOR SEAN MARSHALL HAD NO FORMAL ACTING BACKGROUND.
Despite this, he beat hundreds of kids who auditioned to play Pete. “I think Disney always went for kind of the natural,” he said.
7. MARSHALL BECAME AN ALL-AMERICAN POLE VAULTER IN COLLEGE.
He partially attributes his athletic success to his role in the film, saying that the training he went through for the part, especially ballet, made him more of an athlete.
8. THE LIGHTHOUSE BEACON COULD BE SEEN FOR MILES.
Nora and Lampie’s lighthouse was equipped with a real lighthouse lens and a wickstand that could create a beacon that was visible for 18 to 24 miles. Constructed on California's Morro Bay, Disney had to obtain permission from the U.S. Coast Guard to actually light the lamp. There were plans to eventually move the lighthouse to Disneyland, but it became too deteriorated.
9. MICKEY ROONEY AND RED BUTTONS DID SOME AD-LIBBING.
The scene where Mickey Rooney and Red Buttons drunkenly walk to the cave to see Elliott turned into a massive ad-lib session, with each comedian trying to outdo the other with pratfalls and slapstick. “The director said, ‘That was fantastic, but we can’t have a 20-minute scene where you two are just walking through the cave. We’ve got to re-shoot it,’” Marshall recalled.
10. IT WAS A DISAPPOINTMENT AT THE BOX OFFICE.
The film only made $18 million in the U.S., which was a real disappointment to Disney. The studio was hoping to experience the same level of success it had had with another movie that mixed live action and animation—Mary Poppins.
11. THE SODIUM VAPOR PROCESS WAS USED TO MIX ANIMATION AND LIVE ACTION SCENES.
Invented by Ub Iwerks, the co-creator of Mickey Mouse, the process involved using a camera with a prism installed that separated the sodium vapor lights from the rest of the color. This projected a yellow light onto the screen behind the actor, which could later be subtracted out, and any background could be added in its place.
12. THERE’S A GOOFY YELL TUCKED AWAY IN THE FILM.
It’s when Dr. Terminus (Jim Dale) accidentally sends himself flying via harpoon. Listen for it at 1:13 below.