Disney continues its series of remakes of their classic films with a do-over of Pete’s Dragon. Will this latest endeavor capture audiences’ imaginations or come across as a crass cash grab?
Orphaned at the tender age of five, Pete (Oakes Fegley) has been living in the forest surrounding Millhaven for the last six years. Pete avoids all other humans and lives with his best and only friend, Elliot. It should be mentioned that Elliot is a dragon and has watched over Pete the last six years. When a logging company ventures too deep into the forest, Pete is discovered by Natalie (Oona Laurence), the daughter of Jack (Wes Bentley), the man who operates the logging company. Jack’s fiancée, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is a forest ranger, takes an interest in Pete and works to help him. However, with Pete gone, Elliot is scared and alone in the woods. Despite the ability to turn himself invisible, he is threatened by Jack’s brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), who is looking to make a name for himself. When Pete tells Grace who Elliot is, she goes to her father, Mr. Meachum (Robert Redford), who claims to have seen the dragon himself many years ago and regales the children of Millhaven with stories of the winged beast. Will Pete be reunited with Elliot or live a new life amongst the humans? And what will happen when the dragon moves from local myth to striking reality?
While Pete’s Dragon might be too simplistic for some adult viewers, I found it to be a sweet and heartwarming family film. Sure, I would have liked a little more gravitas here and there, but when you boil it down, it’s a film for kids, but one that doesn’t talk down to them. In short, it’s a typical Disney film, but that last part—not talking down to the audience—is an important one. So many children’s films these days are just so aggressively stupid that it’s tough to find quality entertainment for kids. Pete’s Dragon is quality. It really tugs on the heartstrings and I found Elliot to be adorable. His design is not that of a typical dragon, but neither was Elliot in the original film. This Elliot is furry and his face looks a little more like a dog’s than a giant lizard, but I seriously doubt a child would be all that thrilled about going off with Smaug from The Hobbit, so things clearly had to be softened up. Plus, has anyone ever seen a real life dragon? Of course not, so who’s to say what they really look like? I think Co-Writer-Director David Lowery and his fellow filmmakers did a really good job with Elliot and went in an unexpected direction, which was a nice change of pace. Because Elliot is a CGI creature, though, there are some instances of “green screen acting” from a few of the actors. This is when the audience can tell that the actor has no idea what he or she is looking at and their expression is confused at best. Also, like I said above, I would have liked some gravitas in some parts where it’s missing. During the climactic scene in the film, people should have really been freaking out, but the acting comes across like someone has just disappointed everyone. It was a little disjointed, but a small quibble.
Overall the acting is very good. Fegley and Laurence are especially good and do not come across as “child actors.” Again, in many instances with films geared towards kids, some of the child actors smack of being the producers’ children, but that’s not the case here. Fegley is really good in his scenes with Elliot. He almost makes you believe the dragon is really there. I liked Howard and Redford in their roles, though I could have used a little more of the old man, honestly. I like Wes Bentley in general as an actor, but I felt he was a bit underused here. His character constantly seems to be the last to know in every situation and he feels like he’s eternally playing catch up. Not Bentley’s fault, he was just underwritten. The biggest surprise here, though, is Urban. Now, I know that Urban is a great actor, that’s not what the surprise is. The shock for me was that Urban doesn’t play a mustache-twirling villain as he appears in the trailer. Gavin isn’t a terribly deep character—none of these characters are, really—but he’s not a cliché either, which was unexpected after watching the trailer.
Ultimately, Pete’s Dragon is a nice time at the theater for the family. It’s not quite at the level of E.T. or The Iron Giant, but it hits all the same notes and don’t be surprised if you find yourself getting a bit misty throughout.