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Pete’s Dragon (A Movie Review)

Updated: Mar 21, 2020

Pete's Dragon

Pete’s Dragon


Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Robert Redford, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Marcus Henderson, Aaron Jackson, Phil Grieve, Steve Barr, Keagan Carr Fransch, Jade Valour, Augustine Frizzell, Francis Biggs, Jasper Putt, Esmée Myers, Gareth Reeves and Levi Alexander.

Screenplay by David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks.

Directed by David Lowery.

Distributed by Walt Disney Pictures.  103 minutes.  Rated PG.

The Walt Disney Company has been systematically remaking pretty much its entire classic library for years now.   Ever since the live-action remake of 101 Dalmations in 1996, there has been an onslaught of remakes and reboots.  In recent years it has become even more of a deluge, from straight live-action versions of animated films like Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, The Jungle Book or the upcoming Beauty and the Beast, to tweaked version of the classics like Malificent (a variation of Sleeping Beauty), The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (very loosely based on a scene from Fantasia) and Saving Mr. Banks (a story about the making of Mary Poppins).

Even a long-lived studio with a legendary library like Disney is eventually going to run out of good stuff to remake.  Therefore, here, Disney does something a little more subversive.  To paraphrase Paul McCartney, they took a bad movie and made it better.

The original Pete’s Dragon came out in 1977, at a point where Disney’s animation arm was sort of in the dregs.  It was over a decade on from their last two stone-cold classics, Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book.  Sure, earlier in the decade Disney had a couple of minor successes with The Aristocats and Bedknob & Broomsticks (which like Poppins and Pete’s Dragon was a mix of animation and live action), but even those imperfect films were over five years in the rear-view mirror.

Most of the old classic animators at Disney had either retired, been let go, or had died, leaving the animation department headed up by a new kid named Don Bluth, who was responsible for drawing the dragon Elliot in that film – the rest of the film was live action – and honestly the merging of the two was rather uncomfortable.  Bluth would end up leaving Disney to become their biggest competition, making such hit films as An American Tail, The Land Before Time and All Dogs Go To Heaven during Disney’s dire days.  The studio would not end up pulling out of this funk for over a decade after Pete’s Dragon, when The Little Mermaid (1989) would finally start Disney’s animation renaissance.

The first Pete’s Dragon was an oddball mix of broad comedy, musical, animation and not all that adventurous adventure scenes.  It was a story of an orphaned boy who stumbled into a New England coastal town sometime in the 40s or 50s.  The town is populated by has-been actors like Shelley Winters, Jim Dale, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons and Jim Backus and soon-to-be has-been singer Helen Reddy.

Little Pete is an adorable scamp, and he has a best friend, a flying animated dragon named Elliott who disappeared whenever anyone else appeared.  (Elliott was voiced in a series of annoying burbles and chirps by has-been comedian Charlie Callas.)  The sweet lighthouse keeper’s daughter comes to care for Pete, but the rest of the town wants to get rid of the little scamp, particularly when they find out his best friend is a mythical medieval creature.

The new version smartly jettisons much of the old storyline, and all of the awkward comedy, only keeping the spine of the story.  Pete is now a feral kid who lives in the Colorado woods for six years when he survives a car crash in the middle of nowhere that kills his parents.  He only survives because of Elliott, a giant dragon that is invisible to most people, but becomes his best friend and pet.  Elliott may be a giant dragon, but he acts more like a dog.  This opening feels a little overly similar to the recent remake of The Jungle Book, but it still works.  And luckily the dragon now is CGI, making him much more realistic than the other dragon.

Eventually, after hiding from the civilized world for years, Pete is found when a group of lumberjacks start tearing down trees in his forest.  (They never specify when this film takes place, though on a guess just judging on the cars that everyone drives in the movie, I’d say it is sometime around the late-80s or early 90s.)  Again there is a beautiful woman who takes an interest in protecting Pete, now a forest ranger played by Bryce Dallas Howard.  Pete is torn between a life with a human family and living in the woods with his best friend.

Of course, when the lumber workers find out about the dragon, they try to capture him, leading to a showdown between the dragon and the townspeople.

It turns out to be a much more affecting movie than you’d imagine.  Who would have thought?  For once, rebooting an old film is only doing that film a favor.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2016 All rights reserved. Posted: November 29, 2016.

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