As much as it seems like Disney has always been firmly in the public’s heart in recent years, there was a point where the studio’s fortunes dipped quite a bit. In the 70’s and 80’s, Disney’s film output really exploded, but this also led to a sense of quantity over quality, with the classics that defined the studio’s name all but disappearing at that point, possibly due to the studio trying to learn how to function anew after the death of founder, Walt Disney in 1966. Disney would eventually find their footing again and enjoy an awesome new renaissance with the turn of the 90’s, thanks to the award-winning release of The Little Mermaid in 1989, but in the previous two decades, the studio was really struggling to recapture their former glory.
Within this ‘dark period’ for Disney, came what was ultimately one of their more enduring releases, but one that was also not seen by many people at the time; Pete’s Dragon. Pete’s Dragon was a pretty ambitious movie for its release year of 1977, being a live-action/animation hybrid that sort of felt like an attempt to recapture the appeal of one of the last great movies before Walt Disney’s death, Mary Poppins, itself a hybrid of live-action and animation. Pete’s Dragon was at least a cult success, but it fell well short of the enduring standards of Mary Poppins, since it didn’t strike the chord with audiences and critics that Disney was hoping it would.
It’s this shaky reception that makes Pete’s Dragon an odd choice to join Disney’s growing slate of modern remakes, especially when the movie’s 2016 remake barely has anything to do with its 1977 original, beyond the identities of its two lead characters. Perhaps it’s a good thing that Pete’s Dragon diverges so wildly from the original though, since the remake is actually pretty good, and seems to be a rare example of a big screen remake that’s actually largely superior to the original movie! In that sense, Pete’s Dragon does feel like a do-over, more so than a true remake, but it’s nonetheless a charming and likable family movie that is worth bringing your kids and loved ones to, if for no other reason than to see just how adorable that modern CG dragon is!
The original Pete’s Dragon spread the focus evenly between young boy, Pete, and his dragon companion, Elliot, but the remake is much more clearly focused on Pete. This alters the tone quite considerably, and makes the remake of Pete’s Dragon far more grounded than the original. If the original movie is sometimes criticized as biting off more than it could chew with its ambitions however, maybe it’s a good thing that the remake is more tight and focused on the human side of events.
That’s not to say that Elliot doesn’t matter in the storyline, though he’s treated a lot more like a plot device in the remake, as opposed to a fully-fleshed out character. That works, though it also means that the dragon only really plays a big part in the storyline in the movie’s beginning and end. In the whole middle portion, Elliot doesn’t really do much of anything, with the storyline instead focusing squarely on Pete, trying to rediscover how to live and function in the human world, after he’s inevitably discovered by passersby when living with a dragon in the woods. At that point, Elliot just sort of bumbles around and waits to truly become important in the climax.
Oakes Fegley delivers a pretty fair performance as Pete, and he’s complemented by fellow child actor, Oona Laurence as one of Pete’s first friends, a young girl named Natalie, but it’s actually the adults that carry most of the movie’s dramatic weight. Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford, as level-headed ranger daughter, Grace and dream-chasing grandfather figure, Mr. Meacham, respectively, supply pretty much the entirety of the big heart behind Pete’s Dragon. Grace is a hyper-idealistic mother figure, despite being initially introduced as one of the more skeptical adult characters, and it’s truly difficult not to fall for Redford capturing a true sense of wide-eyed wonder, as he starts dissecting the secrets behind Pete’s strange existence.
There’s a couple of other characters of note, namely Wes Bentley’s Jack, Grace’s husband and Natalie’s father, who sort of hangs around and does little else beyond whatever the plot demands, and Karl Urban’s Gavin, who is the closest that the movie comes to having a true antagonist. Gavin is a hunter and woodcutter who doesn’t seem to have any definable personality beyond being a bully, and his villain is somewhat wasted, especially since it’s clear from the get-go that there’s no way he’s going to succeed at anything he sets out to do, somewhat deflating the stakes. That said though, at least Urban’s over-the-top delivery is kind of fun, with Urban recycling his Star Trek dialect as Dr. McCoy, only making it sound even more ridiculously cynical in Pete’s Dragon.
Honestly, the movie’s cast isn’t put to all of the use that it could have mustered, but Howard and Redford still add a very big heart to Pete’s Dragon, and even if he’s on-screen less than you would think, Elliot is another big part of what makes this remake so appealing to watch, despite having less outward personality. Big, puppy-eyed and inexplicably furry, Elliot never even speaks in this remake, unlike the original, and is portrayed more as a lost animal that has found eccentric kinship with the equally lost Pete. The scenes that we do get with Elliot do manage to capture that great air of Disney magic that the original Pete’s Dragon from 1977 didn’t fully muster however, though this movie may have been a better Disney standout, if we didn’t have to wait until the climax for Elliot’s stake in the story to truly matter.
Unsurprisingly, considering that it’s a lot more grounded than the original, the Pete’s Dragon remake is no longer a musical, and instead focuses purely on being a solid family values-themed movie. That works in its favour though, since, while Pete’s Dragon follows the tried-and-true Disney family formula pretty closely, a bit too closely in fact, its storyline is still very lovable, even if not all of the characters are given a proper chance to shine.
The movie is primarily about the young boy protagonist, Pete being suddenly discovered in the woods, after years of living on his own… Or so it appears. In reality, shortly after losing his late parents in a car accident several years prior, Pete is cared for by a big furry dragon, whom he names Elliot, after a storybook character, but when Pete starts opening up about his special friend, the small town that finds him might have some bad ideas about what to do with the dragon. All in all, like I said, it follows the traditional Disney formula pretty closely, and as much as it’s a heartfelt movie, Pete’s Dragon isn’t a terribly complicated one, and does feel a bit more disposable than it probably should.
For a story that’s very simple and very predictable though, Pete’s Dragon is very appealing in the moment, since it’s the kind of movie that you’ll want to watch when cuddled up to your special someone, be it a spouse, a child of yours, or whoever else. It’s pure, big-eyed Disney comfort food, telling a simple, wholesome tale that’s highly digestible for audiences of any age, even if it has very, very little to do with the 1977 original. Even so, I can’t stress enough just how much you’ll gush over that adorable dragon!
Pete’s Dragon is directed by David Lowery, who also co-wrote the script, alongside Toby Halbrooks. Lowery isn’t a very well-known director, having mainly worked on short films in the past, and not having many feature film credits to his name. Despite that, Lowery looks like he’ll be settling in with Disney for a little while, since he’s also apparently been tapped to helm the upcoming live-action Peter Pan remake, likely in response to Lowery actually realizing a good Pete’s Dragon remake, against the odds! Fortunately, Lowery does seem to be someone who understands the formula of how to make a good Disney movie too, even if he doesn’t seem to deviate too far from what other successful live-action Disney movies made for family audiences have done in the past.
Lowery almost proudly embraces a sense of warm familiarity in Pete’s Dragon, which can sometimes hold it back from its full potential, but this approach does manage to make a Disney movie that wisely avoids the main mistake of the 1977 original, namely taking on more than it could handle. This remake, by contrast, is much more subtly directed and grounded, but also feels easier to follow, more enjoyable to watch, and, if not hugely memorable, at least satisfying on the way out of the theatre.
Perhaps Lowery really could have made a splash if his direction popped a bit more, but the simple focus on warmth and heart does work in the remake’s favour. There’s some sequences of cheeky humour and some sequences of mild excitement, though none of it ever fully escapes the realm of being just a bit milquetoast in its execution. When stacked up against the brilliant Zootopia or the excellent live-action remake of The Jungle Book from this past Spring, Pete’s Dragon definitely feels more conservative and by-the-book, though Lowery’s direction manages enough likability and charm to avoid feeling truly lethargic or disinterested, even if you might think that just a wee bit more ambitious magic wouldn’t have hurt.
As with the story progression, the difference in audio stylings between the original 1977 Pete’s Dragon and the 2016 remake of Pete’s Dragon, is night and day! Like I said, the remake is no longer a musical, and that means that the movie’s score is purely focused on complementing the wholesome, grounded storytelling. It feels like the music tries to pick up some of the slack of the more realistic storytelling style too, furry dragon aside, working overtime to add whimsy and enchantment to scenes that feel likable, but not quite magical enough to fully soar. Fortunately, the new suite of music in the remake manages to be appealing in otherwise boilerplate family-driven scenes during the remake’s middle stretch especially, so Disney fans in particular will probably have no trouble enjoying the score.
The rest of the audio and sound design is also pretty ho-hum though. Despite being large and presumably powerful, Elliot never fully captures a sense of being truly awe-inspiring. The friendly approach to the dragon is probably the point, since the whole climax is founded on Elliot not being dangerous, supposedly, but the fact that the dragon is so obviously harmless doesn’t do many favours to the audio during the scenes that are supposed to be more hair-raising. Pete’s Dragon is clearly very concerned about not scaring children and not making its relaxed family audiences feel genuine fear or discomfort, sometimes to the detriment of the pretty low-key sound work, though at least the flight scenes do a better job of conveying Elliot’s presence, which is why it’s a shame that there’s not more of those.
Seeing as Pete’s Dragon is a story that feels like it largely takes place in a real, grounded world, you can imagine that all of the visual work entirely revolves around realizing the titular dragon. Fortunately, this is where the remake is probably at its strongest, despite the rather limited visual effects work. Elliot’s new CG design, succeeding the hand-drawn animation style of the Elliot from the 1977 original, is one of the finest CG creations of any live-action movie that’s released in all of 2016 so far, with the only possible rivals being the CG animal cast of Disney’s live-action The Jungle Book remake from earlier this year. It is truly impossible not to immediately fall in love with this gentle, adorable creature, which looks very huggable and cute. Yes, Elliot looks nothing like what most of pop culture perceives a dragon to be, particularly since he somehow seems to be a furry mammal in this movie, but that just highlights all the more how much Elliot is the best and most creative element of what would otherwise be a very by-the-book Disney movie for family audiences.
The one point where the Pete’s Dragon remake might bite off more than it can chew however is with the decision to post-convert it into 3D. Disney’s movies are generally pretty great in 3D (even if the Marvel Studios movies can sometimes be a little uneven with their 3D jobs), but the 3D in Pete’s Dragon feels disappointingly sloppy and unnecessary. There’s a couple of 3D effects here and there, such as sunbeams that appear to shine through the screen, but even the flight sequences make disappointingly little use of it, and for most of the movie, the 3D just listlessly hangs there and adds nothing to the already limited visual effects. You’re better off just saving your money and seeing Pete’s Dragon flat in 2D, which is a shame, since the fact that this story involves a dragon makes it feel like a huge missed opportunity in regards to making actual creative and fun use of a 3D presentation.
Pete’s Dragon doesn’t manage to achieve the same sky-high standard of many instant classics that Disney seems to be continually releasing over the past several years, but it at least succeeds at being a wholly superior remake, even with a drastically different tone and direction than its 1977 predecessor. Disney has released several far better movies throughout 2016 at this point, namely Zootopia, The Jungle Book, Finding Dory and Captain America: Civil War, but Pete’s Dragon still stands as heartwarming, inoffensive comfort food for the whole family, or perhaps a dear spouse. It’s a movie that doesn’t come anywhere near hitting the stars that Disney seems to be routinely shooting through in recent months and years, but Pete’s Dragon is still enjoyable, and very difficult to dislike.
Regardless of whether or not you liked the 1977 original, or whether you’ve even seen it, Disney fans will definitely enjoy Pete’s Dragon, as will anyone that just wants to unwind with a less stimulating, more lovable Summer blockbuster. Even then, history is sadly repeating itself with Pete’s Dragon’s box office earnings, which seem to be rendering it another unfortunate Summer flop to go with Alice: Through the Looking Glass, even if that barely matters when Disney is by far the most successful movie studio of 2016 at this point, particularly with Zootopia and Captain America: Civil War both being the only billion-plus-grossers, and both The Jungle Book and Finding Dory just barely falling shy of that same milestone.
With those big waves, Pete’s Dragon doesn’t seem like it will stand up among Disney’s big cinematic home runs of 2016, especially with Doctor Strange, Moana and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story poised to rake in even more colossal box office cheddar during the Fall/Holiday season, but the remake still works, and succeeds at what it sets out to do. It’s no Cinderella or The Jungle Book, but as far as Disney remakes go, Pete’s Dragon is still worthy of approval and applause, since it took a shaky foundation, and did something truly lovable with it, which is far more than most remakes could hope to achieve.
- Howard and Redford especially give lovable performances
- Heartfelt, grounded storyline that is better than the original tale
- Elliot is an amazing, very lovable CG creation
- Follows the familiar Disney formula a bit too closely
- Elliot feels too inconsequential in the movie's middle stretch
- 3D is weak and sloppy