Pete (Sean Marshall) and his pet dragon (voice of Charlie Callas) are on the run. Having endured the verbal and physical abuse of a foster family with ulterior motives for adopting (which are tunefully explained in grand musical style), the orphan and his pal Elliot escape to the sleepy, seaside village of Passamaquoddy. Hoping to scout out the town without awakening suspicion, Pete admonishes his magical friend to keep out of sight.
Even though Elliot has the ability to turn himself invisible, the innocently mischievous dragon just can’t stay out of trouble. Engaging in silly pranks, he quickly draws attention to the 9-year-old boy who is just as quickly blamed for the resulting property damage, along with the indignity of pulling the petticoat off the local schoolteacher. And the problems only get worse when the firer-breather appears in his green and purple flesh to a drunken sailor.
Fleeing the angry mob, the homeless child fears he will never find a safe harbor. Then he’s spotted by a tenderhearted lighthouse keeper. Nora (Helen Reddy) befriends Pete and accepts his wild tales about an invisible dragon as the product of a lonely imagination. She even offers Pete a home and allows Elliot to stay nestled in a cave below the lighthouse.
The future is looking bright until Nora introduces the runaway to her father Lampie (Mickey Rooney) who turns out to be the inebriated man terrified by the sight of Elliot. When his prattling tongue convinces a sleazy snake oil salesman (Jim Dale) and his hapless assistant (Red Buttons) that there is a real dragon living in the neighborhood, the mercenary, self-titled Dr. Terminus decides to capture the elusive monster so he can use his body parts for medicine and make lots of money.
While the plot may seem rather melodramatic, and the musical interludes are sure to break the tension, there are still plenty of perilous moments to frighten young viewers. These include depictions of dragon hunters with nets and harpoons, as well as the Grogan family spouting threats of bodily harm and plots of kidnapping. Another concern for parents may be the portrayal of drinking (several scenes are set in a tavern) and frequently intoxicated main characters.
Yet the production has heart. It pulls on sympathy strings for the vulnerable Pete and the unlucky-in-love Nora. It playfully shows Elliot’s protective intentions as the animated dragon interacts with the live-action cast. And the emotional rendering of Helen Reddy’s song Candle On The Water garnered the movie with an Oscar nomination. Released in 1977, Disney’s Pete’s Dragon will likely continue to breathe its charm on audiences for decades to come.