Pete’s Dragon (2016)

PeteDirector: David Lwery

Screenwriters: David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks

Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, and Karl Urban

Disney’s gluttonous onslaught of reimagined live-action reboots hits a new milestone with Pete’s Dragon, a remake of the 1977 film of the same name. Just four months after the release of the monumentally successful Jungle Book, Pete’s Dragon represents the first time the studio has released two remakes of its classic films in one calendar year! Still, as easy as it is to view these remakes as a withered corpse of lost inspiration dressed up as a gift to a new generation, I must put my snarkiness aside and admit that Pete’s Dragon is another solid entry on the remake roster.

Pete’s Dragon tells the story of an orphaned boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) who while lost in the forest discovers and befriends a mythical dragon whom Pete names Elliot. Pete and Elliot live and thrive in the forests of the Pacific Northwest for six years before Pete stumbles upon lumberjacks cutting deep into the woods near where he and Elliot live. When Pete is spotted by Natalie (Oona Laurence) the young daughter of one of the workers, she chases him into the forest and during the chase nearly falls from a tree and screams causing her father Jack (Wes Bentley) and his girlfriend Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) to arrive on the scene. Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban) accidentally knocks Pete unconscious leading them to take him to the hospital and in turn, abandon Elliot in the woods alone. Now apart for the first time in years, Elliot an enormous, green, furry fire-breathing dragon leaves the woods in search of his lost friend. Meanwhile Pete is invited to stay with Jack and Grace and discovers that Grace’s father Meacham (Robert Redford) claims to have seen a dragon once long ago. Trouble brews as Elliot is spotted by Gavin who sees nothing but dollar signs if he can somehow capture himself a dragon!

Pete’s Dragon was directed by David Lowery, whose most notable film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) couldn’t be more thematically distant from this film. However, Disney has done well at attracting great directors and allowing them to make family films that are their own. Whether it’s David Lynch’s The Straight Story from 1999, Niki Caro’s McFarland USA from 2015, or more recently Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella and Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book. These films work because of the creative freedom allowed to their directors, and Lowery benefits from this, creating a beautiful film and a grounded fable with good performances. Also, the dragon is nicely realized here. In 1977 the limits of technology forced the dragon to be a hand-drawn cartoon inserted into a live-action film. Here the dragon is created with cutting edge CGI to make it feel more immersed allowing the narrative to not use the dragon as a distracting novelty, but a realistic presence resulting in a richer cinematic experience.

So given all of the classic films produced by Disney studios over the years, you have to wonder, why Pete’s Dragon? Is it the dated aspect of the original film? Could it be the popularity of Game of Thrones and its dragonesque motifs? Maybe it’s because it was a good candidate for Disney to show us another child victimized by the sudden and tragic death of parental figures after Cinderella (2015) and Jungle Book (2016)? Quite honestly, Pete’s Dragon may be the best candidate to benefit from a remake thus far. Lowery is the first to truly deviate from the source film’s major story points. Pete’s Dragon has more in common with King Kong or Free Willy than it does with the 1977 original, which was basically a goofy musical version of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn…with a dragon. Lowery casts a deep, fantasy-laden tone here; the film is more a sum of its parts than the original film’s more segmented feel. Additionally, the 1977 film is more obscure than Cinderella or The Jungle Book, and it received far more polarizing reviews than either of these films, making it ripe for a makeover. Still, while Pete’s Dragon was perhaps most worthy of a remake treatment, it is still a pretty safe movie in any regard. Plot points come fast and predictably, emotional turning points are crowbarred in manipulatively, and Bryce Dallas Howard once again wears unflattering clothing while facing off with enormous presumably extinct reptilian creatures. Any way you look at it, the previous remakes have been based on older and/or obscure Disney films. Next up, we have Beauty and the Beast in early 2017, which is neither old nor obscure, so the pressure’s on. B

Pete’s Dragon is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 43 minutes.

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4 responses to “Pete’s Dragon (2016)

    • Actually, no – not better than Jungle Book. It’s the biggest upgrade of the three in that the new version is far more superior to the original but Jungle Book was better. I should probably make that point clearer in the review.

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