Pete’s Dragon (2016)

The other night, we decided to watch the 1977 Disney film of “Pete’s Dragon”. My kids watched it a lot when they were young and it seemed like a good thing to do in getting up for the remake that opened this weekend. As I watched it, I remembered how painful it was to experience back when the kids were four or five. It is looong. The songs are not memorable at all, and the actors either ham it up excessively or they are stiff as a board. Whatever the new film was going to bring us had to be better than this misbegotten piece of nostalgia that I hope never to have to sleep through, I mean watch, again.

Happily I can report that I was correct, this new version is a substantial improvement and will be an excellent family film for kids over the age of seven or eight. The one major reservation I have is that the film begins with a family vaction that goes dramatically wrong. It is traumatizing and the little guys might be scared and have nightmares about what happens. It is a scene that is done in the gentlest of ways but it is still tough to take when you are with your family. Once the opening five minutes is passed, the rest of the movie is a delight with some poignant moments of sadness but nothing that the kids won’t have seen in a dozen other stories.

 

In a way, this is a different version of “The Jungle Book“, with an orphan being raised by a wild anima but ultimately needing to be returned to a human society.  The animal in question does not really talk or sing but that does not mean that it does not emote. “Elliot” was a cartoon in the musical version and he was not always a creature that you could identify with. Ever since CGI has been used in movie special effects, Dragons have been a subject. From Dragonheart, to Reign of Fire, up through The Hobbit Films and Game of Thrones, these animals have been used as characters . Most of the time they are terrifying, sometimes they have voices but always they have been dangerous and scaly. The film makers here have managed to make a dragon lovable without stripping him of his dignity. Anyone who has owned a dog will see familiar expressions and behaviors expressed by Elliot. This is a story about a boy and his dog, who happens to be a dragon. The closest I’ve seen to this style dragon in the past is “the Luck Dragon” from “The Neverending Story“. Elliot is furry and the face is expressive, I also liked the addition of his body colors changing in response to a particular touch.

Bryce Dallas Howard makes back to back appearances in consecutive years in movies featuring large animals run amuck. Unlike “Jurassic World“, she is unlikely to get eaten, but her costar is a CGI invention. Robert Redford is in this film in a peripheral way, but as usual he is a welcome presence. I did not know that Wes Bentley and Karl Urban were in the film so that was a nice surprise. Young Oakes Fergley, who plays “Pete” is a good find for the part of a young child living in the wilderness who becomes a fish out of water in suburban/human surroundings. He is still very young so it is hard to say what his potential is but he is already a better actor than the child cast in the 1977 film.

There will not be any great twists in the story, it does feel in fact very much like an older Disney film when it comes to the plot. What makes it better than those creaky films like “Blackbeard’s Ghost” or “The Love Bug” is the quality of the production and the actors involved. Everyone treats the story here seriously and the events that happen only stretch credibility a little bit at the climax. The last twenty minutes feels right out of a dozen other films even though the plot is different and the characters are not the same either. If you are a sentimental adult who can suspend their cynicism  for an hour and a half, or if you have kids and you want them to see a quality family picture, than “Pete’s Dragon” should do the trick, and you won’t have to get an annoying Helen Reddy song out of your head afterwards.

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