First Word: The original Pete’s Dragon was filmed in 1977, and stands as one of Disney’s lowest-ranked family adventure offerings. It was another of those something-for-everyone numbers (part musical, part cartoon, and all-round hammy acting fest) that just didn’t add up for anyone. Disney waited almost 40 years to try their hand at a remake that would right past wrongs. On this basis alone, the new Pete’s Dragon was a surprising success. The songs are gone and the sub-par animation has been replaced by pleasing photorealistic CGI, and the cast is better than average. Viewed independently of its problematic pedigree, however, this gently meandering affair only just gets by.
Synopsis: Young newcomer Oakes Fagley is Pete, a kid who lost his parents in a car crash at an early age, and has been going feral in the forest ever since. If you’re thinking Pete is a bit like Mowgli from The Jungle Book you are on the right track, save for one pressing point of difference. This kid’s chief guardian and playmate is Elliott, a furry, jolly green dragon. A happy idyll for these best friends is rudely interrupted by an unplanned return to civilization, which has never been renowned for rolling out the red carpet for furry, green dragons (even ones with the personality of a fire-breathing St. Bernard pup). “Are you going to eat me?” asks Pete upon their first encounter. Except for occasional Rooby-Rooby-Roo-type vocalizations, the dragon doesn’t talk, letting cuddling and free rides on his back signify its good intentions. But Pete raises a good question: What does this creature eat? We never see it munch on as much as a daisy despite engaging in such calorie burning activities as flying in and out of cloud cover and battling back interlopers. A small point, perhaps, but for the kind of magic that the movie is reaching for to manifest itself fully, the details matter. The story also involves the discovery of Pete by the family of a kindly forest ranger played by Bryce Dallas Howard and of Elliot by an ambitious logger played by Star Trek Beyond‘s Karl Urban, who seems to be doing a riff on Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. 7/10
Characterization: Pete’s Dragon does boast a great cast. David Lowery was able to coax great performances from his young actors, and of course Robert Redford and Bryce Dallas Howard are excellent as well. But one does wish that the film’s talented cast were given a bit more characterization on which to feast. The film also feels more interested in pushing through the machinations of its not terribly involving plot than developing the sense of wonder one craves in fables of this sort. 6.75/10
Cinematography: The cinematography in this film is excellent. However, the battle here is between the sincerity of the filmmakers’ intentions and the cynicism driving the film’s creation. Part of Disney’s ongoing attempt to use CGI to make fresh meals out of the dustiest cans in its cupboard, Pete’s Dragon is one of those movies that talks a lot about magic—Robert Redford, the grandfatherly narrator whose “by and by” bookends the film, says the word at last seven times—rather than effectively presenting it on screen. It functions on the mistaken idea that its genuinely kind heart and occasional cinematic flourish can make up for generally muddled characters who are supplied with the barest of motivations. There is a lovely face-off in the half-light of twilight between Elliot and the loggers trying to capture him, which along with a thrilling chase of Pete through the mill town shows off the cinematic imagination of director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints). This single category however can’t make up for the films shortcomings. 7.75/10
Conclusion: Pete’s Dragon feels more interested in pushing through the machinations of its terribly involving plot than developing a sense of awe and wonder which one would expect in this type of fable. However one cannot help but admire the sweetness of the film and the gentleness in a time when most films have become cinematic bombast. Nevertheless, while Pete’s Dragon does manage to take flight and occasionally soar, David Lowery can’t quite stick the landing.
Final Score: 7.2/10