Pete's Dragon (2016) / Fantasy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG for action, peril and brief language
Running Time: 103 min.
Cast: Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Karl Urban, Wes Bentley, Oona Laurence,
Director: David Lowery
Screenplay: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks
Review published August 17, 2016
One of the rare sequels that makes the original feel obsolete, the 2016 version of Disney's Pete's Dragon is a way to take an original but flawed concept and make it a winner for a whole new generation. Gone is the dated use of animation, the only half-memorable musical numbers, and the somewhat distasteful subplots involving child slavery and the attempted murder of the beloved dragon in order to use his carcass to make money selling balms and ointments by a snake-oil salesman. Whereas the 1977 original coasted on whimsy, this effort plays things almost wholly for family drama, unafraid to dabble into realms of sadness and even a little bit of fright, but done with such a light and deft hand that it won't break the hearts of the kids who've invested their interest into the plight of the bond of a boy and his dragon -- or should I say a dragon and his boy?
The gentle, dreamlike film starts with some of the heavier material when we find the titular Pete (Fegley, The Truth About Lies) as a very young boy left orphaned after a car crash, leaving him alone in the dense woods of the Pacific Northwest with seemingly no one to protect him -- that is until a kind-hearted giant green dragon, also gone astray from his own family, comes along to take the child under his wing, almost literally, and raise him for the next six years in seclusion. That's when Pete, now ten years old, is discovered by a friendly forest ranger named Grace (Howard, Jurassic World), who takes the lad home with her daughter Natalie (Laurence, Bad Moms) and fiancée Jack (Bentley, We Are Your Friends) until they can find out where Pete's home actually is. However, complications arise then Jack's brother, Gavin (Urban, Star Trek Beyond), run into Elliot, which is what Pete has called the dragon, while they're out in the woods working for their logging company, seeing a means to become wealthy if they can capture the magical creature for all the world to see.
While it's a familiar story, not only because it's a remake, but many other family films (such as E.T., My Neighbor Totoro, or, more recently, The BFG) follow a similar formula, Pete's Dragon succeeds by merely being a very competent version of the seemingly age-old plot of a boy and his wondrous protector. Imbuing Elliot with the fur and personality of a loyal but intelligent puppy dog, the film establishes the bond of friendship and family with Pete early, which serves up a great deal of the suspense and warmth that will come later into the story, as the two get into their own forms of trouble while trying to find a way to unite. The kids aren't played to cloying or cute, and the adults not portrayed as unfeeling or neglectful of their needs, makes this the kind of family film that has been rare to find in this day and age when trying to tell a story meant to tell things from the point of view of a young boy. Kudos to director and co-scripter David Lowery (Ain't Them Bodies Saints), who has spent many years as a director and editor of respectable but not terribly popular indie movies, for delivering such a touching and uplifting Disney film without cheap, cartoony theatrics or special-effects dominated artifice.
While Gavin is he equivalent of the heavy to the film, it's refreshing to see that he isn't the kind of moustache-twirling madman like Dr. Terminus from the 1977 release. Yes, he does seek to exploit the newfound creature for fame and fortune as some sort of freak show, but it stems more from a core of ignorance on what the dragon is, and what he means to Pete -- he hasn't seen any side of the dragon other than as a wild and dangerous beast. Gavin has his own minor story arc as he start to see a more complete picture that should speak to themes of seeing potentially dangerous creatures in nature as something that should be respected, as well as left to be free and protected, rather than to exploit them or to see them come to harm because of either fear or in trying to earn a quick buck through their demise.
Pete's Dragon won't go down as a masterpiece by any means, but it still emerges as one of the better live-action family films in some time because it builds its characters well, its mysteries with patience, and its plot with just enough danger to make the plights of our heroes palpable, but not so heavy-handed as to leave a sour aftertaste once it's all said and done. While the dragon dominates most of the action and emotion, it's a decidedly human film.
©2016 Vince Leo