Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)
(Rated PG for action, peril and brief language)
While I did grow up with animated shorts and feature films from the Walt Disney Studios, I was not raised on the myriad live-action features that the studio had made. Yes, my childhood was ‘dry’ when it came to titles like Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Pete’s Dragon.
Of those three musicals, Pete is the one film that has been somewhat touch-and-go within the Disney fandom. While some have fond memories of the film, others wince at Pete’s singing, as well as the pre-Roger Rabbit attempts to bring an animated character to life in the real world.
When word came that a new film bearing the name Pete’s Dragon was coming out, it was met with a miniscule cry of uproar, from those who thought the 1977 film should be left alone.
Even so, the previews did make me curious as to how the filmmakers would handle this new take on an old classic.
In the Pacific Northwestern town of Millhaven, its residents live on the edge of a huge forested area.
One day while out in the woods, Park Ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard) is surprised to find a young boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley), who appears to have been living in the wilderness for some time.
Grace is curious as to how he could have survived, but grows even more curious when he mentions he has a friend in the woods, named Elliot.
From the start, it’s very easy to see that the world of this film, is much different than the one from the 1977 film.
Gone are the early 1900’s with their dirty hillbilly family and traveling salesmen. Instead, the environment has moved into the 1980’s, with dually pickup trucks, record players, and not a cellular phone in sight! Plus, for those who aren’t into musicals, you’ll be pleased to know there’s no show-stopping musical numbers to be found.
Oakes Fegley plays the role of Pete, who is soon torn between wanting to stay with his big green friend, and to also be a part of the new family that he is welcomed into. Fegley quickly caught my attention, as he romped and jumped through a few scenes, with a nimbleness that reminded me of The Jungle Book’s Mowgli.
Given when he first entered the woods, I was surprised just how well Pete’s vocabulary was for a boy who had been away from people for so long (he and Elliot communicate as well, but the dragon doesn’t speak in words). It’s almost like the filmmakers made a compromise, in making Pete talk a bit more (and know more words!) than he should. It seems a shame, as one could easily imagine Pete being almost completely mute when Grace first discovers him, and opening up more as the story progresses.
While the other characters have some charm, they don’t do a whole lot that really makes them stand out. Howard’s Grace wears a caring smile most of the time, and her fiance Jack (Wes Bentley) is just…there. Robert Redford also has a small role as Grace’s father, though it almost seems like he could have been excised from the story completely. It feels like the one exception to the supporting cast is Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Lawrence), who quickly shows what an extrovert she is, when she keeps trying to get Pete to come out of his shell.
The film also takes a rather neutral approach when it comes to ‘bad guys,’ with the closest we get being Jack’s brother, Gavin (Karl Urban). A worker at his brother’s lumber mill, we see him overstepping boundaries on where the company can log, which irks Grace a few times (did I mention she’s also engaged to Gavin’s brother, Jack?). Soon after we meet him, Gavin pretty much becomes the equivalent of one of the adults in Steven Spielberg’s E.T., when it comes to Elliot.
Speaking of E.T., it almost feels like director David Lowery was trying to recapture a little of that 80’s magic, going with the “a boy and his ______” story, while in the midst of a nostalgic flashback to simpler times. However, the story has a long way to go to even come close to the emotional rollercoaster that that classic film was.
Even with a rather average story, the film does play almost like a lost 1980’s family film. Its semi-serious nature for most of the film, puts it a few heads above many other films that are considered ‘family films’ in this day and age (and it’s one of the few that doesn’t contain ‘mild rude humor’ for being a PG-rated production).
The screening I attended was in 3D, and I must say if you’re going to see the film, do so in the regular format. Several sequences take place at dusk or at night, and my friend and I found ourselves often straining to make out some things through the dimness of our 3D glasses. For example, there was one scene that seemed as if it was meant to draw our attention to something, but neither of us could make out what it was we were supposed to be entranced by.
Watching the credits, I was pleasantly surprised to see WETA Digital credited for the work on Elliot. The company seems to have a lock on big characters this summer (they handled The BFG‘s effects as well), and what they’ve brought to “the big furry dragon” for this film, seemed to please both children and adults alike in the theater.
Elliot behaves almost like a huge dog at times, and quite a lot of care has been given to the expressions on his face. If anything, Elliot (for not being real) seems to be the character with the most emotional range in the film.
Overall, Pete’s Dragon hits almost all the right notes for being “a Disney film,” but in watching it, I couldn’t help but think, “this could have gone so much further!” From character development, to decisions that some persons make, it feels like we could have gotten a much stronger final product in the end.
Final Grade: B (“Pete’s Dragon” gives us a new tale regarding a boy named Pete, and his dragon friend Elliot. With top-notch special effects, the film explores the realms of what friends and family can mean, but gives us little more than a decent family film, feeling at times like it could have soared to even loftier heights of greatness.)