MovieBob Reviews: Pete’s Dragon (2016)
The new remake (which, surprisingly, comes courtesy of indie drama specialist David Lowery of Listen Up Philip and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) keeps the main character names and the basic “boy and his dragon” scenario, but shaves the rest of the story down
When you’re as ubiquitous as the Disney brand happens to be in the realm of family filmmaking, even the movies you make that aren’t particularly popular or successful will end up being a cherished favorite for someone, somewhere. For my family growing up, that was Pete’s Dragon; a bizarre 1977 musical-comedy about an orphan boy and his wacky dragon named Elliot – a cartoon-creature superimposed into otherwise live-action footage and often “played” by elaborate slapstick special effects via the conceit that the character could become invisible.
Mainly remembered by popular-culture for a handful of bizarre comedy set pieces and (since it’s Disney) lavishly-mounted musical numbers, it was an obvious attempt to reignite the Mary Poppins spark that was only a mild success in theaters, but earned a cult following later on VHS (it was technically the first Disney feature to hit home video – and even then only for famously short original run.)
Framed as a kind of proto-Calvin & Hobbes (the skeptical adult characters treat Elliot as an imaginary friend – until they don’t) the overly-busy story had Elliot protecting Pete from a family of violent backwoods crooks who were technically his legal guardians. At the same time Pete is protecting Elliot from the machinations of a scheming con-artist “medicine man” who believes dragons to be little more than resource-banks for all manner of elixirs and potion ingredients.
This is all wrapped around a main storyline of Pete being taken in by a sea captain’s widow (Helen Reddy) and her lighthouse keeper father (Mickey Rooney) in a fictional Maine fishing village sometimes in the 1900s. It certainly retains a bizarre, almost hypnotic charm to today – it’s easy to see its influence on later films like E.T. and The Iron Giant, while also shocking to think it landed the same year that Star Wars did.
The new remake (which, surprisingly, comes courtesy of indie drama specialist David Lowery of Listen Up Philip and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) keeps the main character names and the basic “boy and his dragon” scenario, but shaves the rest of the story down to the basics in order to center that main relationship.
Just as in the original, it’s effectively an imaginary friend story where Pete has to essentially face up to the prospect of letting his coping mechanism (Elliot) go in order to potentially reclaim a connection with other people and maybe find a family of his own – the obvious metaphor for withdrawn/abandoned (or abused) children having to work their way back into trusting others not being particularly subtle in either version. But whereas the original aimed for big-scale kitchen sink bombast, the new Pete’s Dragon is a slow-burning mood piece that shares more in common with the similarly melancholic The BFG from earlier this year.
It’s also (thematically, at least) just a hair darker than the original; largely through having no big dance numbers or comedy set pieces to interrupt the delicate character drama at its core. In an age where most “children’s films” (and Pete’s Dragon, while fine for family audiences, is 100% laser-focused on relating to an audience the same age as Pete himself) are all about frenetic pleas for attention, this is a film that commits whole hog to being a narrative bedtime story with all of the gentle-escalation, quiet contemplation and an overall sense of bittersweet growing-up allegory.
In terms of energy, it has about as much in common with the likes of the Minions movies (or even Disney’s own Finding Dory) as a glass of warm milk does with a methamphetamine bender – think the live-action Where The Wild Things Are feature from a few years ago as a suitable comparison; though E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial is the more obvious inspiration story wise.
In an eyebrow-raising opening scene that’s sure to feature prominently on future lists of mildly-traumatic Disney moments (make room, Bambi’s Mom and Mufasa) five-year-old Pete becomes the sole survivor of a freak car crash that kills both of his parents and leaves him stranded deep in the woods somewhere in the Pacific Northwest. Frightened, alone, and soon enough pursued by a pack of hungry wolves; he’s rescued by an imposing but friendly fur-covered dragon (the design seems to deliberately evoke a cross between Bigfoot and The Jersey Devil) whom he names Elliot after a puppy in a picture book that also survived the crash.
The film correctly understands that if we don’t “buy into” and come to cherish the idea of Pete and Elliot’s mutually-devoted instant friendship there’s nothing to hang the story on, so an impressive amount of the first act is spent in a largely plot-free space of simply watching the day-to-day existence of Pete as he grows into a pint-sized ten year-old Tarzan getting by in the woods on his wits and dragon-assisted survival skills.
As in the original, there’s no question that Elliot is “real” in the physical sense, but the pair’s scenes together are purposefully reflective of a boy whose come to rely so singularly on what amounts to a gigantic teddy bear that he’s forgotten how to recognize his own loneliness or longing for human connection.
But human connection soon finds Pete instead when the unscrupulous boss of the local lumber company (Karl Urban) makes a push deeper into the woods than he’s supposed to and butts up against Elliot’s territory. The presence of the first other humans he’s seen in five years immediately draws Pete’s curiousity, particularly when Urban’s character’s ecologically-minded forest ranger sister in-law (Bryce Dallas Howard) comes nosing around with her family and, through a series of mishaps, winds up discovering the “feral” forest child and taking him back to nearby civilization. Problematically, Elliot’s presence becomes known as well, and Urban’s craven opportunist immediately recognizes him as the “Millhaven Dragon” of local urban legend and rounds up a posse to go monster hunting for fortune and glory.
Anyone even a year or two older than Pete himself will be able to guess where this is all going, but the magic is in getting there and Pete’s Dragon is one of the most gentle, deliberate versions of this particular story to come along in a long time. The stakes are real (a sequence where a briefly-unconscious Pete wakes up in a hospital and flees into the town only to be overwhelmed by the sheer unfamiliarity of it all is a bravura piece of filmmaking).
The emotionality is raw, especially as it begins to dawn on both boy and dragon (who, thanks to invisibility powers carried over from the original film, can observe his interactions with Howard’s family) that Pete needs to be returned to a human world where Elliot can’t be a constant presence – or maybe a presence at all – but there’s no false drama or unearned tension.
This is a slow, methodical story that trusts the youngsters to stay captivated by their own familiarity with the growing-pains dynamic at play and eschews explicit emotional exposition in favor of letting simple (or, in Elliot’s case, silent) reactions from the title characters set the mood. Even when things do begin to ramp up, with act two climaxing in a collision of misunderstandings where Pete’s official introduction of his new human friends (including Robert Redford as Howard’s somber Dragon-believing father) to Elliot morphs into a sequence of Urban and his flunkies capturing the Dragon that’s every bit as harrowing as E.T.’s home-invasion scene.
It keeps things honest and doesn’t go for cheap points. Urban’s greedy, rifle-toting, tree-cutting villain feels about one red “Make America Great Again” hat away from being an outright caricature, but when the plot reaches put up or shut up time for its adult characters he’s allowed to manifest as a human being, albeit a misguided one.
The film is actually so committed to its own honesty and deliberate nature than it winds up coming in just shy of the ambitions its quality suggests, i.e. it’s so intimately-scaled and contemplative in its storytelling that it doesn’t quite rise to the levels of, say, The Iron Giant. But it’s a lovely and deeply moving feature that in its own quiet way proves a vital antidote to the sensory-overload that kid audiences tend to get from even the better films aimed at their age group in Summer months.
While children may not leave Pete’s Dragon with the kind of merchandise-craving sugar-high mindset that other kiddie releases aspire to, well… that’s not exactly what bedtime stories are for, in the first place.