Original Release: August 12, 2016
Directed By: David Lowery
After months of looking forward to the remake of Pete’s Dragon, I eagerly waited throughout the work day to make my way to our local theater and watch the story of a young boy, lost in the woods, who meets a dragon by the name of Elliot. I was expecting a presentation on the level of The Jungle Book which, earlier this year, became one of my favorite films of all time. It was everything I wanted it to be. It was a brilliant re-imagining. It reminded me why remakes can be a good thing and how technology can make a great film from long ago, even greater today. What I got, was not quite so much. Below, I will be discussing Pete’s Dragon at length and I will be spoiling pretty much everything. I’m sorry, but I have to. To really make the point I want to make, I’ll have to talk about all of it. So if you plan on seeing the film, perhaps wait until afterwards to read this. Either way, you’ve been warned. The point I need all these spoilers to make? While Pete’s Dragon was not, by any means, a bad film, it could have been so much better.
In case you haven’t seen the original film, or perhaps you need a refresher, Pete’s Dragon was a film about a boy, lost and alone, who needed help. That help came in the form of a magical, sometimes invisible, always lovable dragon named Elliot. Through a series of events, Pete finds a family and once he has learned to love his family, Elliot leaves him to find another child in need of help. It’s a beautiful concept and one that speaks to anyone who has ever been lost or alone. While watching the new Pete’s Dragon I tried desperately, clawing at the cushion of my seat not to compare it to the original, but this became increasingly difficult as this version practically leaches the magic and heart of the original right out of the picture.
Despite Robert Redford telling us that there is magic in the world and that this dragon, which he saw long ago and is now a legend in the town, was magical, we never really feel it. In fact, this film makes a fine point of telling us that Elliot is, in fact, an animal, which has managed to hide itself in the forest. Like Bigfoot or the yeti, this isn’t a magical beast, it’s just a big bear that’s good at hiding. Already there’s something pure missing that made the original so great. But I tried to move past that. After all, this is still a film about a little boy who loses his family and then lives alone with a dragon until a family finds him and their love gives him a home.
Yet, even this feels a bit robbed. The main connection Pete is meant to have is with Grace Maecham, played by Bryce Dallas Howard. She plays the character beautifully, but unfortunately the writers also chose to introduce her fiance’s daughter, Natalie, played by Oona Laurence. Here’s the thing, Oona plays this part spectacularly, BUT because so many relationship building scenes are done with her, where they should have been done with Grace, the ending doesn’t feel right. Why is Grace running to hold Pete? They barely know each other. The connection isn’t there. He’s spent most of the film with young Natalie. I don’t buy it. If only Natalie’s beautiful scenes of showing Pete a record player or helping him to determine his age were given to Grace, all this love in the end would make sense, but as it stands, Grace honestly just seems overly clingy.
There’s also Grace’s fiancee Jack to consider as well as his brother Gavin, who plays our villain. Jack might be one of the most useless characters of all time. Seriously! He does nothing of note in the whole film, besides reading a book. Yippee. Here’s your “I’m a pointless character” award. And Gavin? What is this guy’s deal? He’s just such a jerk. Sure, we sort of get the idea that he wants to make more money off of the lumbering they are doing, but that’s it. This character is so one-dimensional that he never really feels like a threat. He’s sort of just there to provide at least a hint of conflict, which the film is seriously lacking. There’s rarely tension at all. Once the ending picks up and the question becomes whether Elliot will be able to escape the hold of the townspeople, things get pretty exciting, but that’s about an hour and a half into the film. It’s a long drag to get to that edge of your seat moment.
I want to step back and mention a few parts of the film that I really enjoyed, because I feel like I’m being overly hard on this one. First off, Oakes Fegley gives a stellar performance as Pete. This has been a great year for child actors. From The Jungle Book to Netflix’s Stranger Things, the kids are on fire. Pete plays well and I never stopped believing that this little kid was talking to this dragon. And Elliot is phenomenally animated. He looks very real and the use of his invisibility is handled very well. I also love that he’s a bit hap-hazard in his flying. He always seems to crash and is always a little off balance. It’s a cute touch. He often acts like a dog, which had much of our young audience laughing. Finally, I really liked the folksy music, which helped to set this film, a story of a boy running around a forest, feel fairly different from The Jungle Book. It’s a stylistic choice that was well made.
The final moment in the original where Elliot tells Pete that he must go help another child is lost here, however. And that might be the biggest injustice. The tear jerking moment just isn’t there, and in fact, it seems more that Pete is the one saying he must leave and that they can’t be together. The moment feels a bit cheated because despite the fact that I wanted to not compare it to the original, I simply couldn’t ignore how much better it would have been had it been closer to that moment.
And that’s really my general feeling overall for Pete’s Dragon. Beautifully animated and stylistically on point, in its effort to be different than its predecessor, it went with story choices that simply aren’t as good or as compelling or as emotionally moving as the original. It’s a sad thing when a big budget film like this can’t make you feel more than a tongue in cheek musical from 1977. Pete’s Dragon will surely be loved by families for its non-offensive, non-threatening fun, but it will not be remembered or talked about in the way that The Jungle Book was. Heck, it probably won’t even be remembered in the way that the original film was. And so I’ll say it again. While Pete’s Dragon was not a bad movie, certainly not the worst I saw this week (Suicide Squad) it could have been so much better had it taken its source material to heart just a bit more.