Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Karl Urban, Wes Bentley, Oona Laurence, and John Kassir
Written By: David Lowery (screenplay), Toby Halbrooks (screenplay)
Directed By: David Lowery
Studio: Walt Disney
Run Time: 102 minutes
Lately, Disney has been going back into their vast library of titles and either rebooting them, or re-imaging them.The results of those endeavors vary, depending on your level of fandom and whether or not you have children in your home. One thing is for sure, Disney always delivers the family film, which I am thrilled to say is exactly what the reboot of Pete’s Dragon is.
The 1977 Pete’s Dragon was a blending of live actors and one animated dragon. The animation was hand drawn or what many refer to now as 2D. The film is still marvelous to watch for its over the top villains, musical numbers, and of course the Disney magic that brings Pete’s dragon, Elliot, to life. However, the film is not held in such high regard as Snow White or 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. It does have flaws that I won’t dive into, which makes rebooting it decades later a safer bet. So how much of the 1977 film survived this 2016 reboot? Just enough to tie it loosely to the original, yet still be its own thing.
The basic story of Pete’s Dragon is the same. A young orphan, Pete (Oakes Fegley), is taken in by a dragon, Elliot (John Kassir) and kept out of harm’s way. In this new version, Pete is eventually discovered by a young forest ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard). As the plot unfolds, it is Grace and her father, Meecham (Robert Redford), who have to rally friends and help Pete keep Elliot from the clutches of profiteering men. It really is that straight forward. Yet, this retelling of the story breaks a lot of the stereotypes of such a straight forward plot, and that is where Pete’s Dragon becomes new again.
It’s all about character choices. First and foremost, there is Pete. Writers David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks changed Pete from a down-on-his-luck orphan with evil foster parents, to more of a Mowgli (from The Jungle Book) character. Pete lives in harmony with nature and has a symbiotic relationship with Elliot. They have come to rely on one another. The ever present motif is of a boy and his dog, but that only helps to make Elliot more relatable. We all have the lovable pet that we treat as a member of the family, because they are. This is what Elliot and Pete are to one another, family. Since I mentioned that the evil foster parents are out of the equation, this film still needs a bad guy. Enter Gavin (played by Karl Urban), a lumber jack who sees Elliot as his golden ticket. Where Gavin breaks the conventions of the mustache-twirling villain is that he could be you. You see something that no one else has seen. If you catch it, you could be wealthier than you are now. The writers also connect Gavin to Grace by having her engaged to his brother, Jack (Wes Bentley). Finally, we come to our heroine, Grace. Her father, Meecham, is the old guy in town who claims to have once seen a dragon in the woods. His tale has grown over the years, but he is the only one that believes in the magic of possibility. The normal character-type for Grace would be that of the unbeliever, a realist who is more embarrassed by her father than anything. Their story arc will close with the opening of her heart to the possibility that he has been telling the truth all along. Only then will she see the light. This is actually not the character of Grace in this film. In fact, she is more of a believer, when things get tough, than anyone else. With little convincing, she is open to Pete’s wild story. So when she needs someone else to support her decision to save Elliot, dear old Dad is the first person she can trust.
All of these characters were a huge breath of fresh air. The genre of fantasy films can become stagnant. More often than not, writers and filmmakers rely on the predictable conventions of these types of stories because they work. All you have to do is pull on the heart strings, make Elliot like the viewers’ favorite pet, insert a sappy song, and bam! Here is your family fantasy movie with a 30 million dollar opening weekend.
The film is not without its faults, though. The constructs of removing Pete’s parents from his life could have been handled in a different manner. The writers found a way to tell the story with non-conventional characters, so why not make the manner of the parents’ death a little less obvious? The first two acts of the story flounder for a bit, as well. Constantly, I felt like we were being introduced to even more characters and I kept waiting for the plot to get rolling. Thankfully, Redford’s Meecham, who opens the story with a narration, and then his tall tale, returns with a great monologue about what really happened in the woods all those years ago. He sets the ship right and the film, from that point on, is solid.
We also have to address the title character himself, Elliot. It is a huge gamble by Disney to create a mostly (I think) CGI creature. Disney already put the greatest dragon on screen, IMHO, back in 1981 with Dragonslayer (now there is a film they should embrace again with a remake). Yet, here we are just a few years after Smaug graced the silver screen in The Hobbit Trilogy and Disney rolls the dice with a green fuzzy dragon. It works brilliantly because they craft the illusion in such way that you believe he is really there, much like the original 2D version of the character back in 1977. I honestly don’t want to know how they did it, because I believed it was real from the get go. That’s magic.
I recommend Pete’s Dragon for any fan of the fantasy family film. There is a good message here about friendship and family, but is not heavy-handed. In fact, I felt this was a great return to form for Disney, as if Walt himself may have shepherded this one from the beginning. Take the family out on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, splurge on the movie treats, and enjoy this together.