In a summer filled with movie remakes, sequels and superhero installments, Pete’s Dragon ranks as one of the best remakes in a summer composed of so-so flicks.
The film is an adaptation of Disney’s 1977 live-action/animated musical that doesn’t go down in the Disney hall of fame with the likes of Beauty and the Beast, Mary Poppins or 101 Dalmatians. 2016’s Pete’s Dragon thankfully wanders with poetic beauty from the slightly odd and unsteady original.
The new Pete’s Dragon begins harmlessly with a much younger Pete going on an “adventure” with his parents. What seems to be a joyful road trip for the young family soon changes to a terrible tale as the car is flipped over, horrifically killing both of Pete’s parents. The frightened new orphan, clutching the book — “Elliot Gets Lost” — with which he was learning how to read, ventures into the woods alone. That’s where he finds Elliot, a giant, furry green dragon. This moment in the woods marks the beginning of a truly remarkable friendship between the two.
Six years later, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a rambunctious boy, bounding though the woods with his best friend Elliot, the dragon, who doesn’t appear terrifying in the least. The story is really a simple boy-and-his-dog tale; however the dog in this tale just happens to be a big, sometimes invisible and very lovable dragon.
Pete’s seemingly idyllic life is interrupted when he sees Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Natalie (Oona Lawrence) from a distance. Grace, a park ranger, is taken aback by the fact that this young boy has been living in the woods, which she claims she knows like the back of her hand. She’s even more surprised to find that Pete says he’s best friends with a real dragon — most certainly not an imaginary friend.
Grace at first doesn’t believe in the dragon; in fact, her father (Robert Redford) has told her stories all her life about seeing a dragon in the woods, but reason has always swayed the nature-loving, logical person she is into disbelief. One of the the story’s best aspects is that it teaches viewers a thing or two about faith and believing — “just because you don’t see something, doesn’t mean it’s not there,” as Grace’s father tells her.
The film succeeds in a timeless way, typical of director David Lowery’s films. It doesn’t seem to land in a specific time period, yet it’s reminiscent of the early 1980s. However, it has modern qualities that make it difficult to place it in its period setting — a wise move by Lowery.
The scenes shot in the woods of New Zealand are beautiful, and the CGI in the film is just enough (not overdone). Although the film is somewhat slow in the middle, its action-packed and dramatic ending make up for it.
Culturally, it shifts from the original 1977 Pete’s Dragon, mainly in the aspect of Pete’s adoptive family. In the original, Pete’s foster family is cruel and quite creepy. An excerpt from the opening song, “The Happiest Home in These Hills,” in the original proves my point:
Grover and Willie: “Gonna paw him, claw him, saw him in half,
When he cries out for mercy, we’ll just laugh,
Beat him, heat him, eat him for dessert. Yeah!”
Lena: “Roast him gently so the flames won’t hurt.”
These lyrics just may be the most disturbing of all of the songs in Disney’s early musicals.
2016 Pete’s Dragon definitely abstains from making Pete’s adoptive family more like slaveholders than an actual family. Instead, it focuses on Pete’s struggle to want a family more than just Elliot, and the decision he has to make as he tries not to be disloyal to his dragon-best-friend while developing a relationship with the world outside of the forest.
This summer, Disney has put out three live-action films about a child befriending large creatures — The Jungle Book, BFG and, Pete’s Dragon. Pete’s Dragon far surpasses BFG, and while it is not as stunning or engrossing as The Jungle Book, it holds its own.
It’s not a film for all types of moviegoers, but Disney lovers, imaginative dreamers and young families are all sure to enjoy Disney’s latest endeavor.
After watching Pete’s Dragon, readers should watch the 1986 classic, An American Tail. Pete’s Dragon is one of the latest, successful children’s movies to be in theaters; similar to An American Tail, Pete’s Dragon focuses on adventure and a world comprised of animals with somewhat human-like traits. It differs in its production, theme and culture, which we’ll explore next week. Next time we’ll take a look at this kid’s film done before the days of CGI, in good old animation, produced by Steven Spielberg.
Photos courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Pictures