Directed by: David Lowery
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley and Karl Urban
PG 102 Minutes
The original Pete’s Dragon from 1977 is a whimsical, charming, unabashedly goofy musical with a single animated element – the Dragon himself, Elliot.
The Pete’s Dragon that has opened as of 2016 is not that film. It is a reimagining with the musical elements and some of the more troublesome elements (like white slavery—!) removed.
The original film took place in Passamaquoddy, Maine. This film moves the story to the Pacific Northwest, to a town called Millwood. The story is framed by narration from Mr. Meacham (played by a still-adorable-after-all-these-years Robert Redford), father to preservationist, anti-logging park ranger Grace (a dewy and doe-eyed Bryce Dallas Howard). Despite the fact that Grace thinks her father is well-meaning but fanciful and a little too invested in his tall tales, the two obviously love each other. This is one of the film’s strongest messages – for the sake of love, try to find a common ground even if it takes you out of your comfort zone.
The conflict in the film comes not from the loggers, though there’s a definite problem thanks to overeager Gavin (Karl Urban), who tries to clear-cut the forest despite being told not to. He seems to have this idea that he’s meant for bigger and better things; if denuding the green forest of the Pacific Northwest will do it, then by gum, that’s okay with him.
SPOILER WARNING: Beyond this point this review contains spoilers. Proceed at your own risk.
Grace, his sister in law, however, has other plans since she’s a forest ranger and a conservationist.
Once the dragon gets on Gavin’s radar, he decides that’s going to be his claim to fame, though he hasn’t quite worked it out beyond “people will come from miles around” – and that’s the film’s weakest point. Gavin is the bad guy because the film needs one. His motivations, rather than mere moustache twirling, are feeling like he deserves better than to run a logging company, rage at his brother Jack for not believing him when he says “those tall tales about dragons are real!” and bruised ego at Elliot the dragon having terrified him and bent his gun. He lacks the typical sneering Disney villain traits, and is actually very protective of any child he encounters. But we have no idea why he thinks he deserves to be the one to put his town on the map.
The film is, to its detriment, just Disney showing off their CGI engine. Elliot (voiced by John Kassir) is a marvel of beauty. In 3D, the woodland home he shares with Pete is just gorgeous. The camouflage invisibility and color change effects of Elliot’s fur are stunning. Be that as it may, there are far too many scenes of feral, wildboy Pete and his indulgent dragon buddy before any other people get involved.
Between the actor’s vocals and the visuals, Elliot is beautifully emotive. Like the other film’s titular dragon, this one does not speak so much as make mumbly and groaning noises; but they convey a variety of emotions.
The hollow conflict is easy to forgive, though, because the film does weave in a number of strong messages so it’s not so threadbare a plot: Family is who you love and who loves you. Pete is a feral Tarzan-like kid who tries really hard to go back to Elliot once well-meaning adults have taken him away. But Grace, Jack and Natalie soon become family to him, and he realizes that as much as he loves Elliot and living in the forest, all good things must come to an end; in this case because the whole town learns about the dragon. Jack and Gavin’s conflict is not resolved easily. Once Jack realizes he was wrong about disbelieving his brother, he goes to Grace’s side, to help her protect the dragon from his fame-hungry brother. Another message: that blood or no blood, you do the right thing when it’s time to step up.
Grace’s father joins his daughter in being supportive of Pete, giving him reasons to trust humans so he doesn’t automatically seek to return to the forest. Jack’s daughter, Natalie, is the plucky kid that’s Pete’s age so he has his first friend.
The film does end on a nice literal uplifting note I won’t spoil, but it too carries a strong message about the importance of relationships.
For all that the film has with these strong emotional beats, the story could’ve been much stronger, which leads me to the things I must critique.
Draggin’ Out The Weak Points
There are a few things the movie handwaves – perhaps too many.
The film telegraphs the way Pete will end up alone in the woods for six years. Mom (Esmee Myers) and Dad (Gareth Reeves) keep taking their eyes off the road to glance lovingly back at their son to encourage his burgeoning literacy and to tell him repeatedly all about how brave he is, and what a great adventure they’re about to undertake. An innocently murderous Bambi relative leaps in front of the car during one of these moments where they are glancing back adoringly at Pete. The resulting scene with Pete gazing in wonder as the world goes topsy turvy around him is segue’d into the aggressively tear-jerking scene in which he first meets the friendly dragon.
We get a pretty, overblown montage of Pete and the Dragon sharing fun in the forest, and then – time skip! Six years have passed!
Natalie is dragged into the woods by her father, and she’s irritated about it because she wants to go to school. But spotting Pete, she follows him into the woods, only for things to go wrong and both of them to go tumbling from the top of Pete’s treehouse home to the ground. Grace takes Pete to the doctor after the fall he shares with Natalie. He appears to be in near perfect health despite falling easily 20 feet out of a tree. The closest thing we get to an explanation for this is that Pete, who is only ever seen eating mushrooms from the forest floor, has been protected from malnourishment by “magic”. The same magic that gives Elliot his ability to perfectly camouflage is apparently what keeps Pete healthy. The only person who even mentions the magic is Grace’s father, the only person to have ever seen Elliot before the bad guys drag him out into the light.
Speaking of Elliot, the filmmakers didn’t bother trying to break new ground. 1977’s Elliot was a playful butterball of clumsiness. This film’s Elliot is a little clumsy, but also takes cues from the How To Train Your Dragon films. Elliot chases his tail like a puppy and stretches out like a lazy cat from one scene to the next; only to display startling intelligence and understanding in other scenes.
Another painful weak point is the way women are portrayed in the film. Grace and Natalie are the plucky girls, but neither one of them does much to advance the plot. The presence of women in this movie is to let you know when to have feels. There are only a handful of women in the film, but almost half of them are dead and reduced to mentions by other characters! Pete lost his mother (and his father); Natalie lost hers, and we don’t know how or under what circumstances. Worst of all is the low-key fridging. Grace’s mother died when Grace was around Pete’s age. We don’t learn Mrs. Meacham’s name or the circumstances of her death. We know only that she died when Grace was Pete’s age, and that gives Grace a pain to share with Pete.
Lastly, the folksy music was way too rural for this city-dwelling viewer. That twangy guitar and steel flute music made me sleepy.
The film does at least pass the Bechdel-Wallace test. Grace, Natalie and Dr. Marquez (Keagan Carr Fransch) talk about Natalie’s minor injury after falling out of Pete’s treehouse.
Natalie is the reason anyone finds out about Pete by fearlessly following him up that treehouse. Grace fights back against her brother-in-law in small ways by doing things like painting over the “cut this tree” paint markings to protect wildlife habitats, and by taking the keys out of their bag equipment and tossing it away so the loggers will have to hunt for it. She spends a little too much time in the film wet-eyed with tears to suit me, though.
Then there’s the doctor who makes sure Pete and Natalie are not badly injured. Finally, we get a little girl who sees Elliot and is not remotely afraid. She describes him as a monster, but waves cheerfully at him.
So, yay, girls with agency I guess.
Thankfully, I can’t complain much about race or sexism issues. There were only two I spotted. One was a throwaway line about Grace being hard to deal with because “redheads”. The second was one of the background songs having a line about being a “Gypsy boy”.
Lastly, as usual, the number of non-white characters could probably be counted without using both hands. While the doctor who treats Pete and Natalie is black and the Sheriff is black, neither have more than a line or two for the entire film.
2.5/5 – The “redheads” line, the “Gypsy” line and the fridging of the unnamed mother cost it half a star. The rest is for Disney expecting the beautiful and adorable Elliot to so completely entrance the audience that we wouldn’t care about the story or characterization …and for the continued woeful lack of diversity. Remove a whole star if you were hoping for a faithful remake. Add another half star if you were grateful as I am that the environmental message was not used to beat the audience over the head.
This is not to say I didn’t find the film enjoyable. It was a relaxing enough way to spend two hours, and kids will find Elliot enthralling. I really enjoyed the relationships and the strong messages they sent. It seemed Disney tried too hard to be “now” and “socially aware”, in the process sacrificing the lighthearted charm of its original film in the process.