I’m sure you’re all familiar by now with Disney’s ongoing “remake our animated classics in live-action” phase. The results so far have been uneven at best. It certainly doesn’t help that Disney is remaking films that never really needed to be remade. Did we seriously need another telling of Cinderella? Has Beauty and the Beast really aged so poorly that we need a live-action update? Is anyone out there genuinely glad that Jon Favreau got his shot at The Jungle Book? Hell, even when we got a remake of Sleeping Beauty — admittedly a very dated film with some glaring problems — it was really just a useless rehash of Maleficent, who was already the greatest and most enduring part of that movie!
But then we have Pete’s Dragon (1977), a film made with all the ambition of Mary Poppins, but only one-third the talent and none of the intelligence.
I know the movie has its fans, and it’s easy to see why. The basic premise of an orphan who saves the day and finds a home with the help of his magical best friend is a classic archetypal story. Plus, it’s obvious that a whole ton of effort went into the presentation, and that still serves to endear the film all these years later. Especially where the special effects and animation are concerned.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of the effort went into trying way too hard. The comedy is silly and broad, which translates into aggressively painful and mindless jokes between characters who aren’t the least bit sympathetic or interesting for how thin they are. And of course this leads directly to a pitifully lame plot. To wit: One of the main villains is a fraudulent doctor who somehow cons an entire town of people… after it’s been established that everyone in that town knows damn well from firsthand knowledge that he’s a quack!
Then we have the musical numbers. Composers Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kashi are trying so damn hard to sound like the legendary Sherman Brothers that it only draws attention to how far they fall short. So much effort was put into the song and dance numbers that they ultimately become huge and bombastic distractions that go on for way too long and contribute precious little to the story.
So what we have here is a nostalgic favorite built on a decent premise, though the film is heavily flawed and carries a strong sense of wasted potential. In short, this is exactly the kind of movie that Hollywood should be remaking.
And I’m very glad to say that the filmmakers of Pete’s Dragon (2016) successfully take the original film’s premise and make it their own, by way of getting rid of what didn’t work and boosting what did work. By which I mean that they kept the most basic kernel of the premise and jettisoned everything else. The musical numbers are entirely gone. The bay town of Passamaquoddy is now the logging town of Millhaven. There are no abusive hillbillies, no con artist doctors… in fact, I’m pretty sure that Pete and Elliott are the only two characters left intact. And even they’ve gone through some pretty big changes in adaptation.
To take it from the top, we open with a prologue in which we actually see the car wreck that killed Pete’s parents. Immediately after, Pete (then five years old) flees to the forest, where he’s taken in by Elliott. Cut to six years later. Pete (now played by Oakes Fegley) has spent half his life in the forest, completely separated from society, with no company other than his dragon.
(Side note: While the film was shot in New Zealand, it’s never specified where exactly Millhaven is supposed to be located. One source places Millhaven in Oregon and that had damn well better not be true — while the forests in this film are undeniably beautiful, they don’t look a damn thing like the woods I grew up with.)
While that’s going on, the logging company at Millhaven has been cutting trees deeper and deeper into the nearby forest. This is mostly due to the reckless ambition and short-sighted greed of Gavin (Karl Urban), a prominent supervisor of the company. In the other corner is Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a park ranger who’s constantly taking every opportunity to slow the logging down, if not stop it outright. Trying and failing to mediate the two sides is Jack (Wes Bentley), who’s not only the owner of the logging company but also Gavin’s brother and Grace’s fiance/boyfriend/partner/whatever.
Also in the supporting cast is Grace’s father (Mr. Meacham, played by Robert Redford), an old woodcutter with hundreds of tall tales about a dragon he once saw in the forest. Last but not least is Jack’s daughter (Natalie, played by Oona Laurence), the first one to spot Pete when industry encroaches far enough into the forest. Pete gets taken in by Grace and her family while Gavin goes out hunting in the woods for something huge, winged, furry, and green.
Let’s stop to take a look at what we have here.
First of all, the original film had a young orphan running away from home to try and find a less abusive family. By comparison, this is a movie about a boy who genuinely loves his home in the forest but has to choose whether or not he’s going to live with his own kind. So it’s less “Harry Potter” and more “Tarzan” or “The Jungle Book”. It may be cliched, but it’s nonetheless a solid premise with a lot of potential for great character drama, certainly more than the original film had.
Secondly, it helps that Pete is inherently a misfit, completely beyond the understanding of the townspeople he meets. While this was an element of the original film, that was really more about how Pete genuinely wanted to fit in and nobody would give him a chance because the townspeople were all idiots who blamed him for everything. In this movie, everybody really does want to help Pete, they just don’t know how to go about it. And Pete himself isn’t sure if he even wants to be helped.
Thirdly, Pete’s disposition as a feral child and the town’s logging-based economy sets up a very explicit conflict of nature vs. civilization. Any one or two of these factors would be nothing we haven’t already seen a million times before. But put all three together, and the result is somehow new and fresh and compelling all over again.
Moving on to Elliott, the CGI on him is regrettably quite uneven. Granted, the dragon of the original film was always quite explicitly a cartoon, and it’s up for debate as to whether a more photorealistic dragon would have affected anything for good or ill. Even so, the point stands that it’s occasionally hard to see Elliott as an actual dragon instead of so many pixels.
That said, I can’t possibly stress enough how much this film absolutely nailed Elliott. The basic premise demands that Elliott has to be genuinely scary at first glance — and he can be absolutely terrifying when provoked — but he’s just a big puppy dog to those who get to know him. This latest Elliott succeeds beautifully at being all three in a way that the original portrayal never did. Here’s a dragon that could plausibly be your best friend, your worst nightmare, or anything in between, and I can’t tell you how much good that does to the film as a whole.
It also bears mentioning that Elliott is still a big clumsy goof, but only just enough to bring a bit of comic relief without going to the clownish extremes of the original. Additionally, while Elliott can still turn invisible, this version does so by way of a camouflage effect that looks really cool. And while this film dares to bring in an origin story for Elliott, the filmmakers were smart enough to present it as myth and hearsay without making it sound too definitive.
But by far the most important thing about this version of Elliott is his place in the nature/mankind conflict. In this film, Elliott is quite clearly symbolic of whatever mysteries nature may have left, and all the undiscovered wonders we may never get to even know about if we overrun the planet. As such, when our human antagonists inevitably barge in trying to capture and/or kill Elliott, it really does feel like a line has been crossed. It feels like a sin against nature, like something beautiful and unique and ancient and powerful beyond humankind’s capacity to understand has been violated. Regardless of whether Elliott succeeds or fails in escaping, the mere attempt of taming this beast and bringing it to light has created the feeling that something irreplaceable has been wantonly destroyed. It’s all very Miyazaki-esque, and I mean that as a huge compliment.
This brings me to Gavin, our antagonist. On paper, I can see how this character’s greed and shortsightedness might have made him a paper-thin cartoon villain. And there are times later on when Gavin’s pompous insistence on taking all the credit for finding Elliott borders on laughable. Yet while all of these aspects of the character are clearly present, they’re still underplayed in a subtle way. What we’re ultimately left with is an antagonist who’s committed to getting what he wants, determined and motivated in a way that maybe almost kinda might make him the hero in another story. He’s a villain who’s not too silly (even when the film makes a joke at his expense) and not too frightening (even at his most dangerous), but consistently registers as a legitimate threat. Because it’s Karl Urban and he’s amazing enough to make the balance work.
Elsewhere, Grace is a forest ranger who deals with animals all the time, which makes her uniquely suited to reining in the feral Pete. She’s entirely capable of acting as a caring mother figure, patient enough to humor so much talk of dragons while also coldly logical enough not to believe any of it. It’s hard to describe exactly how nuanced and compelling the character is, because so much of it has to do with Bryce Dallas Howard’s performance and God knows she’s done far more with less (*coughJurassicWorldcough*).
As for Robert Redford, what do I really have to say? If Robert Redford ever told you about the time when he fought off a fire-breathing dragon with nothing but a pocketknife, you know damn well you’d be hanging on every word in full suspension of disbelief. And hell, even Wes Bentley turns in a better performance than usual, though it certainly helps that he didn’t have to do much. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Isiah Whitlock Jr., who turns in an admirable yet brief performance as the town sheriff. Last but not least, the child actors are superlative. Laurence and Fegley are each developing some pretty impressive CVs for themselves, and they certainly have the talent to go a long ways.
Visually, the film is perfectly fine. The scenes in town all look modern enough, but there’s nothing in terms of pop culture or technology to pin the story down to any particular point in the last 50 years. The forest scenes are all beautiful, effectively conveying the scale and majesty of the New Zealand wilderness. It’s also worth adding that the camera never calls attention to itself by way of shaky-cam or outlandish movements, and there are very few noticeable effects aside from Elliott. All of this serves to give the film a timeless sort of feel, nicely in keeping with the “fairy tale” vibe of the story.
Which brings me to the film’s major downside: I’m sorry to say that there are times when — like with the original film — this one tries way too hard. This is especially obvious in the prologue, when the filmmakers were obviously trying to shoehorn in all the exposition and platitudes they could before killing off Pete’s mom and dad.
But that’s another huge difference between the remake and the original: While the other film put its effort into making something funny, this one puts its effort into making something heartfelt. Absolutely everything about this film is geared toward selling us on Pete’s emotional journey and the sense of wonder that Elliott inspires. And when those things work, they really fucking work. When Elliott takes flight, I was enthralled. When the supporting characters meet him for the first time, I was awestruck right there with them. When Pete has to make the choice of whether he’s going to leave Elliott for good, it’s genuinely moving. And even when the film goes over the top in jerking tears and invoking fairy-tale imagery, at least the movie still serves its purpose quite well and the moment is gone quickly enough.
There are some family pictures (like Inside Out or The NeverEnding Story) that grow with its audience, taking on new layers and meanings as their fans mature. And of course we have some family pictures (too many to name, in fact) that talk down to its audience, such that no one with any kind of attention span or intelligence could appreciate it. But then you have movies like Pete’s Dragon (2016), which cut right through all the bitterness and cynicism of adulthood to connect with the inner child we may have forgotten about entirely. (The Toy Story trilogy was also great at this.)
With the help of a flawless cast, director/co-writer David Lowery has crafted a compelling and heartwarming film with a powerful sense of magic. He took an old film, and various other leftover cliches, and put them all together into something new and beautiful. With all of that in mind, I’m now incredibly anxious to see what he can do with Peter Pan.
While I wouldn’t recommend the 3D option, I completely and absolutely recommend seeing the movie.
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