It seems that many people are quickly embracing director David Lowery’s reimagining of the Disney classic Pete’s Dragon as a warm and sensitive tale of childhood and friendship. I am not one of those people. Despite the kind of impressive visuals which can always be counted on in a film of this nature, this reinterpretation of a childhood classic is as cliched and trite as all get out, offering nothing remotely new to the level of family film it’s so hoping to emulate. With as much blandness and predictability as is on display here, Pete’s Dragon quickly joins the ranks of Fame, Godzilla and a wide array of other forgettable remakes which offer NO danger whatsoever of usurping their predecessors.
One of only a few handful of elements the film gets right is in the re-working of its plot. In this version of Pete’s Dragon, 11-year-old orphaned Pete (Oakes Fegley) has been raised by a giant dragon named Elliott in the woods of the Pacific Northwest since his parents’ death from a car accident five years before. When a forest ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) encounters Pete, she and her boyfriend Jack (Wes Bentley) and his daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) take the boy in and listen to his fantastic tales about Elliott. No one believes in Elliott’s existence at first until Grace hears her father Meacham (Robert Redford) tell her of a time long before when he too encountered Elliott.
If you’ve seen ANY film involving a child and a magical creature, then you have certainly seen this version of Pete’s Dragon since there is nothing fresh, creative or inventive at all within this film. Throughout its brief (for a Disney film anyhow) runtime, there wasn’t a single moment which could not be seen coming from a mile away. From the moment that the tranquilizer dart hit Elliott, to the instance of gentle bonding between Grace and Pete, to the very second where Elliott breathes fire, every aspect of Pete’s Dragon felt like a recycled snooze-fest. Adding to this is the film’s most glaring flaw, which was the fact that despite sharing such a unique and loving bond, the scenes between Pete and Elliott proved too brief and sparse to register any kind of emotional power. Without any substantial quality time on display, there’s no reason for us to believe that the characters mean anything to each other beyond the fact that the plot tells us that they do.
This being a Disney outing, it’s almost expected that there would be at least a few moments here and there which would save Pete’s Dragon from being a totally flat mess. The film’s 70s setting is great in both its timelessness and in the way it presents the sheer power of childhood and adventure to modern-day audiences. Elsewhere, the film’s soundtrack, which features the likes of The Lumineers and St. Vincent, is a great collection of thoughtful tunes which work in sync with the film’s time and setting. Finally, it’s hard to completely dismiss a film where each of the central characters have experienced the loss of a loved one. The fact that everyone in the film has survived and grown from that kind of pain is a valuable illustration to show young audiences and Pete’s Dragon does this very well indeed.
There isn’t much to say about the adult performers simply because there isn’t much to the work they put on screen here. Howard, Bentley and Karl Urban as Jack’s brother Gavin (the “villain” of the piece) are saddled with such cardboard cutouts for characters, that all they can do is bide their time while the CGI Elliott does his thing. On the flip side, Fegley and Laurence are such naturals in their roles, revealing a pair of strong screen presences which will hopefully carry them far. If there’s one performer who actually manages to raise Pete’s Dragon to a slightly higher level, it’s Redford, who brightens up the proceedings by reminding audiences what a gentle and calming actor he continues to be.
There was so much to like about the original film: the campiness of Shelley Winters, the brilliant combination of animation and live action, and that great collection of songs which made for one of the most fun and eclectic soundtracks of any Disney film to date. Made in the 1970s, the original Pete’s Dragon certainly wore its ideology of acceptance, peace and love on its sleeve with its tale of the power of friendship, however unconventional, enduring no matter what obstacle lay ahead. While this new Pete’s Dragon opted for a slightly different route, with its more generic approach to love and family, it simply can’t help but be crushed under the continuously impressive charm of what came before.