Looking Back at 2010s Films: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

8 Nov

By Tanner Smith

David Lowery’s “Pete’s Dragon” is a remake of the 1977 Disney romp of the same name…in name only. There is a boy named Pete and there is also a dragon…that’s about it. And I am very OK with that.

Let’s face it–the 1977 version, which I grew up with, is too silly and corny to try to replicate. I’m surprised Disney even considered a remake of it at all. But with the recent collection of Disney live-action remakes that we’ve been getting (and are still coming), they saw an opportunity for SOME nostalgia that could bring in SOME profit. So, why not give us something new with that title?

Well, when I first saw the trailer, I was very cynical about it. It didn’t look like anything new–it looked like “E.T. with a dragon.” So, I missed it in theaters, even despite film critics praising it.

But my fiancee insisted we watch the Blu-Ray (which she bought for me as a Valentine’s gift) together. So, I gave it a chance…and I was pleasantly surprised.

Don’t get me wrong–it does have the very things I was afraid it would have: an antagonist who doesn’t listen to reason and a rousing climax in which the dragon is captured and needs to be rescued. But it also has some deep, powerful, emotional moments that I didn’t expect–enough to make for an impressive, memorable, and quite lovely family film.

But it didn’t start very promisingly. It opens with a happy family, so you can predict just how quickly the parents are going to be out of the picture so that the little boy can go off on his own adventures. This is followed by whimsical music and a whimsical voiceover narration from Robert Redford as the local old coot who tells the kids the same stories about a dragon that lives within the nearby forest. And of course, his daughter, a park ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard), continuously brushes off his tales, even in front of the kids (oh come on!).

I thought to myself, “Oh, this is gonna hurt.”

But then, it quickly caught my interest with a neat sequence that could almost be compared to “The Black Stallion,” as we see how this little boy from the beginning has grown in the wild for six years thanks to the help of his lone companion: a green, cute dragon named Elliot (named after a character in a storybook).

Watching these two together, I strangely buy their connection. For one thing, the dragon looks great, with wonderfully convincing CGI and a remarkably expressive face that gets a lot of character across. For another, the kid is a very good actor (Oakes Fegley) and genuinely acts as if he’s playing with a big imaginary beast. And the filmmaking is very well-done here as well. Director David Lowery (whose previous film was the underrated “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” and later films would be “A Ghost Story” and “The Old Man & The Gun”) knows to capture the atmosphere and environment just right if this is going to work. And the quiet moments with Pete and Elliot together work wonderfully. (Considering his experimental work and Disney’s studio tactics, I take it this is another case of a director not arguing with studio demands but instead compromising with them, just as Mike Flanagan did with “Ouija: Origin of Evil”–different movie, but the point still remains.)

I would’ve liked to see more of how Pete and Elliot survive together–that could have made a whole movie on its own. But we still have this story to get to, so let’s see what we got. Pete is discovered by the ranger, who takes him in to meet her family as she tries to figure out where he came from. Sounds about right, you say? Well, even this is well-handled, as Pete, who’s been away from civilization for far too long, struggles with his new surroundings. But he does come to trust the ranger and her daughter, who’s about the same age as Pete, and he does give it a chance because he feels like this is the closest thing that came close to a family for him since his parents were tragically killed. This is what I like; I care for this…now let’s talk about what I don’t care for.

The ranger’s hotheaded brother-in-law (Karl Urban) sees the dragon in the woods and is determined to catch it. And just as Pete takes the family into the forest to introduce them to Elliot (P.S. I like that the dragon is revealed to them in the middle rather than the end of the story), the jerk tranquilizes Elliot and takes him away, resulting in the kids and the ranger racing to save him in one big chase scene… The point of this whole sequence, outside of Disney thinks the audience needs to be woken up from time to time (note the unnecessary chase scenes in “Christopher Robin” and “Mary Poppins Returns,” for example), is that Pete has to come to terms with the reality that a dragon isn’t what he needs when there’s a family that will care for him. But I think this point could have been made in other ways.

To be fair, the brother-in-law is not a one-dimensional bad guy–he does see the error of his ways. But did we really need this whole situation? I was really getting into the scenes with Pete adapting to civilization, Pete befriending the family, and Elliot looking on as he knows he’s losing his best friend. Those scenes are the heart of the story.

But they do make up a good portion of the movie, so as long as they’re well-done, I guess I’ll have to accept the climax that will of course end well for our main characters.

And I will take it over “brazzle, dazzle days” in which our oh-so-jolly good guys are having so much fun painting lighthouses and cleaning windows with their clothed buttocks. (Man the original “Pete’s Dragon” was WEIRD. If you haven’t seen it, check out CinemaSins’ video about it on YouTube.)

It’s easy to call this new “Pete’s Dragon” the best of the modern Disney live-action remakes, because it does something completely different from its source material (which, let me remind you, wasn’t all that special to begin with). But while I obviously don’t think it’s great, I do think it’s good–Lowery’s head was in the right place overall and he came up with a satisfying film even if it could have been improved in some areas. There are many things for me to keep coming back to it and to tell others to check it out as well.

NOTE: There is another Disney live-action remake I really like that did stay true to its original source but also adds and improves upon certain aspects of it: Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book.” I’ll probably write about that one too.

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