Review: PETE'S DRAGON Doesn't Drag On
Does anyone remember Pete’s Dragon?
I’m talking about the original version, an old-school blending of live action and cell animation delivering the titular human kid and cartoon dragon. By all appearances, it was the exact kind of thing that Disney had fine tuned at least a decade earlier, with Mary Poppins. By 1977, when the film debuted, such integration was old hat.
Yet, any casual mention of the original Pete’s Dragon is likely to result in nostalgic swooning by anyone who was a child of the era.
“What was it about?” I ask.
“I have no idea. I just remember loving it!” Such has been the reply of more than one grown fan. They don’t recall what it was about, or even what time period it took place. (One person thinks it may’ve been in the 1880s.) But boy did they love it. They watched it over and over.
With a running time of 128 minutes, that’s a lot of forgetting. My own hazy impressions of the movie, based on a single youthful attempt at viewing it, are unfavorable. Lots of meandering, singing, narrative lallygagging… I didn’t even watch the whole thing. That was at the advent of VHS, which may account for the gaudy, washed out aesthetic I recall.
Now we’ve reached the digital age, a time when a photorealistic fantastic beast and the boy who finds him had darn well better integrate seamlessly. In Disney’s new, shorter remake of Pete’s Dragon, they do.
The film is a pleasant endeavor, through and through. It’s a kids movie -- not to be confused with “a family movie” - mom and/or dad might become bored in moments -- that isn’t afraid to be purely old fashioned in terms of pacing, aesthetic, and sensibility. Pete’s Dragon 2016 is so kindhearted, so gentile, it’s virtually impossible to take boisterous issue with it. Just don’t ask what time period it’s set in. (Some things do not change!)
"There's no such thing as a dragon."
James Bond said that. Of course, he lives in the realm of the improbable but not the impossible. The world of Pete's Dragon is one if impossibilities. For proof, look no further than the biggest name in the cast, a certain one-time leading man heartthrob and exclusively political iconoclast. Here, there be Robert Redford!
It is admittedly odd to see the legendary Redford in a film as devoid of subtext and challenge as this one is. Yet, it's also refreshing. He brings a class and respectability to this otherwise humble affair. (Wes Bentley, the actual adult leading man of this film, can't quite compete, bless his soul). In a film that is at times unnecessarily visually dark, and full of strategically parsed out fog, Redford wholly embraces his job to shine bright as the grandpa who once saw a dragon. He's spent years spinning a convincing yarn, but in the end, not even his grown daughter, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, believes him.
That is, until the day Pete comes into their lives. Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a young boy who's lived in the woods for the six years since he survived the country road car crash that tragically killed his parents. Even before this, and all of the small-town adventure that follows, grown-ups were already calling Pete "the bravest little boy" they've ever met. Pete is a good kid with a good heart. He may not have a character arc, but he does have a dragon.
Pete's dragon, affectionately named Elliot, is a huge, friendly creature with standard dragon wings and is covered in not-so-standard green shag fur. Basically, Elliot is a big, huffing, puffing, wheezing flying dog. His ability to turn invisible has helped him stay hidden all these years.
When the world finds out about him, the chase is, of course, on. An overly ambitious bulldozing land developing foreman played by Karl Urban wants to shoot Elliot full of tranquilizer darts and lock him up, because that's what overly ambitious bulldozing land developing foremen do in films such as this.
The "world" that finds out about the existence of Elliot is inexplicably limited to the small town where this tale transpires. The place is terminally Americana, with quaint shops, kids on bikes, trusty old pickup trucks, and Old Glory proudly flying on every flagpole. No one seems to have a smart phone, or even a camera. (When Urban's character wants to show the sherif the dragon, he has to physically take him there). The throng of 24 hour news media that such a discovery would instantly trigger is non-existent.
It begs the same question that I posited earlier: What time period does this take place? For grown-ups that find themselves a little bored by the proceedings, this question is an unusually engaging one. (Best I can figure, it's 1977... The release date of the source film. Your mileage may vary.)
Director David Lowery of Ain't Them Bodies Saints fame (an interesting career leap, going from that to this) has made a refreshing and perfectly fine little late summer throwback. It's the kind of deliberately paced youth movie that used to be the norm, but is now widely considered too lackadaisical to hold any modern kid's interest. But much like Babe or even the Shiloh films, a decently made film of this ilk will surprise grown-ups in how successfully they can transfix their target audience. It's the very opposite of the obnoxious sensory assaults that pass so often for standard children's entertainment.
But then, beyond any initial satisfaction with the entirely passable affair, will anyone remember Pete's Dragon 2016? Sure. (Maybe?) And, of course there are people out there who remember details of the original Pete's Dragon. There has to be.
Or... Maybe not? Perhaps like that weirdly beloved yet non-remembered namesake, this new and polished (and 3D!) Pete's Dragon will vanish into the mists of warm memory, not unlike the world it takes place in. For the love of Pete.
- David Lowery
- David Lowery (screenplay)
- Toby Halbrooks (screenplay)
- Malcolm Marmorstein (based on a screenplay by)
- Seton I. Miller (based on a story by)
- S.S. Field (based on a story by)
- Bryce Dallas Howard
- Robert Redford
- Oakes Fegley
- Oona Laurence