When a studio announces they have a remake in the works my reaction ranges from an eye roll to a tired groan to a despondent sigh, but when I heard Disney was remaking the 1977 musical Pete’s Dragon I was actually intrigued. Now Disney has been on ramping up there remake/re-imagining productions of the last few years and with varying degrees of success; Maleficent was a blatant rip-off of the Broadway musical Wicked while also ruining one of the greatest cinema villains ever created, the 2015 live action version of Cinderella I found to surprisingly entertaining with its smart look at the “evil” stepmother, and I’m one of those rare people who found the live action remake of the Jungle Book to be a bit of a mess with the unlikable Mowgli being a key problem for me, but the remake of Pete’s Dragon had something none of those film had, and that would be that it was based on a shitty movie. Director David Lowery would have had to work twice is hard to make a film half as bad as the original Pete’s Dragon. That’s got to be a nice starting place for a filmmaker.
The original Pete’s Dragon was a 128 minute movie that was loaded with unmemorable songs, had a protagonist I kept wishing the dragon would sit on, and visual effects that were less than well integrated into the film, but in this remake/re-imagining, or whatever they hell they are calling them these days, writer/director Lowery has made a concise 103 minute family film about a boy raised in the woods by a dragon, with not one single person singing about a fucking candle on the water. I was pretty much on board when I heard this premise. The story kind of borrows a little bit from Jungle Book with young Pete (Oakes Fegley) surviving a car crash that takes the lives of his parents leaving him alone in the dangerous woods, and once he is saved from a pack of wolves by a green furred dragon he basically becomes an American version of Mowgli.
The success of this version hinges on these early interactions of Pete and Elliot (he named the dragon after the dog in one of his favorite books), and both Oakes Fegley and the CGI creation of Elliot work beautifully during all their moments together. The scenes of these two friends traipsing through the forest, scaring bears and climbing trees, is easily my favorite part of the movie, but before someone can even say “Man is in the forest” we are introduced to our other human protagonist in the form of Park Ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who was raised on stories of “The Dragon of Millhaven” by her father (Robert Redford). Grace is your standard hero character who “Won’t believe in anything she hasn’t seen with her own two eyes” and so of course she will eventually encounter Elliot and finally believe her father. It’s a credit to Bryce Dallas Howard that this character has any emotional depth at all as there really isn’t much to her character as written, but what there is she damn well sells on screen.
And just who do we get for antagonists in this version? Well in the 1977 original there was a redneck family that wanted Pete so that he could do all their chores, and Elliot was in danger from a couple of traveling medicine men who believed that dragon organs contain the cure for all Earthly ails, while in this version we have a lumber company that is apparently cutting into restricted forests and when Gavin (Karl Urban), the owner of the company, learns of the dragon’s existence he wants to capture it and make tons of money. It’s this middle section of the movie that is a bit of a miss. If this lumber company is illegally cutting into the forest, a wilderness that Grace deeply loves, than why is the only thing this “Park Ranger” does is chuck a bulldozers keys in the dirt? Sure, that she’s engaged to Gavin’s brother Jack (Wes Bentley), who also works in the lumber company, would be a bit awkward around the dinner table if she had them both arrested for violating State Regulations, but overall this drama is a tad old and tired.
What does work is the aforementioned relationship between Pete and Elliot as well as the friendship Pete strikes up with Natalie (Oona Laurence), Jack’s 11 year old daughter. These two kids have great screen chemistry and the way the film handles how a boy whose spent the last six years living in the woods with a mythical creature would handle being thrust into civilization is pitch perfect. The film is loaded with excellent adult actors but at times director Lowery doesn’t seem to realize we don’t really give a shit about them, and all the car chases and dramatic arguments in the world isn’t going to change that. We want Pete and Elliot, any time spent away from these two just highlights how weak the movie’s plot is, as in it doesn’t really have one.
Is it just me or doesn’t Pete remind you of Spot from The Good Dinosaur?
Its lack of plot isn’t even that big of a deal; Boy meets Dragon, man enters forest, Boy and Dragon are separated, and conflict ensues, this is certainly enough of thread to keep any audience entertained for an hour and a half, but the third act could have greatly benefited with maybe a little more time with Pete and Elliot together. You know, the two we paid money to see. The movie briefly veered into an environmentalist theme but then quickly abandoned that for a “We must catch the dragon!” for the third act, but neither one of those was all that engaging in the first place, and I certainly couldn’t have cared less about the brotherly conflict between Gavin and Jack, and Grace’s engagement to Jack is barely a thing. All that aside I really did enjoy this movie, it’s lightyears better than the original, and I think most kids will fall in love with Elliot who looks like a cross between a dragon and Scooby-Doo. Will this become a timeless Disney classic? Probably not, but it’s still a very entertaining family film and well worth checking out.