Pete’s Dragon and all the images you see in this review are owned by Walt Disney Studios
Directed by David Lowery
Disney is at it again with another fresh milking of the nostalgic cash cow! I really don’t know anything about the original Pete’s Dragon other than Don Bluth did the animation on it, so they won’t be hooking me in with that alone, but then I never had an affinity for Sleeping Beauty and still though Maleficent was one of the best movies of that year. Can this new movie manage to capture the charm and spirit of the original film while also roping in new fans, or is this going to be as uninspired as The Jungle Book? Wait; am I still the only one who didn’t like that? Anyway, let’s find out!!
The movie begins with little Pete (Oakes Fegley) having to watch his parents die horribly as their car ends up flipping over on the interstate, though you’d think the airbags or seatbelts could have saved one of them considering it wasn’t a head on collision. Well in any case, little Pete is all alone in the woods (who SHOULD be covered in his parents blood but I guess you can’t go there in a PG movie) and is about to be killed by wolves when something starts to approach from beyond the trees. It turns out that there be dragons in these hills, and he takes little Pete to raise as one of his own. Many years later, Pete is now at the ripe old age of ten and gets discovered in the woods by a… Forest Ranger I think called Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) who takes him in and tries to get him acclimated to the real world before sending him off to the state. While that’s going on, Gavin (Karl Urban) who works as a lumberjack (he’s either a manager or just an employee that everyone likes) and is certain that he saw something out in those woods and is gonna hunt it because… reasons. Will Pete be reunited with his best friend? Can they keep on going with their living arrangement now that Pete has had a taste of the good life as well as peanut butter? Am I SERIOUSLY going to be the only one who didn’t care for this one, just like with The Jungle Book!?
Of all the movies to have come out this year… well this is one of them. Unfortunately, my feelings towards this remake of a classic animated (or at least partially animated) movie from the Disney catalogue given the big budget CGI treatment is pretty much the same as the OTHER classic animated movie from the Disney catalogue given the big budget CGI treatment released this year which (I think I’ve referenced twice already) is a dispassionate sense of meh. Maybe this one is better as it doesn’t have the same kind of tonal dissonance of trying to be a thrilling summer movie that inexplicably breaks into song, but that one at least felt way more ambitious while this one is just… meh.
The movie feels too sincere and earnest in its depiction of childlike wonder and magic, while also being way too grounded and folksy to take any of that seriously, and this dichotomy kept pulling me out of the movie whenever they would talk about believing in fantastic things, but then have this dragon be a very literal presence in the film. I never got the sense that Elliot was any more magical than say the Indominus Rex from Jurassic World. It’s an odd sort of irony that by making Elliot look so believable within his environment that it ends up sucking all the wonder out of the movie because… well… he’s THERE! Like I said, I really have no recollection of the original Pete’s Dragon even though I’m sure I’ve seen it before. Still, there’s something about mixing traditional animation with real actors that gives a sense of creativity and authentic wonder that is lost when the fantastic creature is so realistically detailed and grounded in its behavior. This is why no one has had the nerve or the straight up sense of villainy to try and remake Roger Rabbit with CGI characters and a bajillion dollar budget. Something would inevitably get lost in the transition. There’s no doubt that Elliot is a creature far more intelligent and powerful than anything that actually exists in our world, but it’s not really… special. Rare? Absolutely. Loveable? Sure enough. Special though? I don’t know… I just didn’t get the sense of awe or majesty that the movie wanted to me to have whenever I saw the dragon because of how well he DID fit in the word.
It’s like that throughout the movie, and not just when it comes to Elliot. I have no idea when this movie is supposed to take place as they apparently live Quaintsville where things have been hermetically sealed since 1984. I don’t remember if anyone had a cellphone (something that would have been REALLY convenient at several points in the story), everyone’s car still uses an analog FM radio, and kids are ACTUALLY reading books instead of using iPads. I don’t THINK this actually takes place in the past though considering how some of the guns look as well as the logging equipment, but I could be completely wrong about that. To me though, it looks more like a place populated entirely by hipsters. It’s well shot and there are some interesting moments here and there in terms of cinematography (there’s an escape scene that’s well executed), but it’s aesthetic ends up feeling pretty forced despite the clear skills of those behind the camera.
You end up having a movie that’s trying REALLY hard to be everything at once. At times it’s whimsical and far-fetched, but at other times it’s trying to take the premise seriously. It gives us washed out and plain looking locations to evoke a sense of realism to contrast with the fact that there’s a dragon, but it comes off as realistic as a Norman Rockwell painting. It’s trying so hard to be all things to all people, yet it just kind of blends together into a bland paste without a committed sense of style or tone. Hell, this even extends to the villain played by Karl Urban who doesn’t really have a plan, doesn’t have much motivation, and barely ends up causing any real harm or ends up having any real consequences for our characters. Still though, even if his character doesn’t make any god damn sense and just ends up being a really lame villain, you gotta give it up to the guy who plays the shit out of this role and manages to still look cool when covered in dragon snot and gathering a search party to hunt a mythical beast, for… reasons.
While Karl Urban is OBVIOUSLY the best actor in this because he’s Karl Urban (he’s charming as all hell even when he’s a bad guy), everyone else does fine in here too. They’re a bit too AW SHUCKS GEE WILIKERS for me (another annoying aspect of this movie’s tone) but they play those roles well enough, especially Robert Redford as the one dude who’s ever actually seen the dragon before now. He’s very charismatic in the role and does the best job of conveying that sense of wonder the movie wants us to have throughout, but his character is also kind of a prick because he takes pot shots at his daughter for not believing in magic. That sort of smug “You have to believe in more than what you see” bullshit that supposed to make the audience feel smart for believing in the dragon… except that WE get to see the damn thing so it’s not really a matter of belief for us when compared to the characters in this movie who have lived in this area their entire lives and never saw anything. How EXACTLY no one ever saw anything up until now by the way is never really explained. True, Elliot can turn invisible, but he still has weight, takes up space, leaves a trail, and probably leaves droppings as well.
Elliot is a very well realized CGI character who exudes a great amount of presence and personality, though in truth he’s hardly proactive in his own story and just kinda exists as a MacGuffin to keep the plot moving; weather it’s to keep Pete from dying (so there can be an ACTUAL movie), fighting off Karl Urban and his crew so as to give us any amount of conflict, or serving as an object for our characters to fight over at the end. In fact, the ending is probably the weakest part as I kept asking what anyone’s goal was at the end there. So many people are in this ludicrous car chase, and yet we have no idea what the hell half of them are going to do if they catch up to whatever it is they’re chasing. What, are they gonna take a selfie? Arrest everyone and put them in jail? Sell the dragon for spare parts? This isn’t some small thing! IT’S THE CLIMAX OF THE MOVIE!!
Look, I’m sure I’ll end up in the minority here the same way I did with The Jungle Book, but this just did nothing for me. I still maintain that Maleficent is the best of these classic remakes, and that’s mostly due to how many risks it was willing to take and what kind of changes they made to the source material (on top of it having a great script with a magnetic performance from Angelina Jolie). The ones we got this year though are just… safe. The Jungle Book was Jon Favreau doing a standard summer blockbuster in the vein of Gore Verbinski (only with an ending that misses the entire freaking POINT of the movie) and this one is no better as a film that spends a lot of money to recapture the charm of a ten million dollar feature of the same name. I’m sure kids and parents will like it as Disney knows how to cross its T’s and dot its I’s, but for me this was just Pablum. See it as some point if you’re really curious, but this simply is not worth seeing in a theater.
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