Film Review: PETE’S DRAGON
Starring Oakes Fegley, Robert Redford, John Kassir, Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence
Directed by David Lowery
Screenplay by David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks
Based on “Pete’s Dragon” by Malcolm Marmorstein
Produced by James Whitaker
Cinematography by Bojan Bazelli
Edited by Lisa Zeno Churgin
Music by Daniel Hart
Consider, as of August, the year 2016 in film as the year that the Hollywood studios somehow seemed to have finally gotten it right and succeeded on a continual basis with the usually-dreary modern-day trend of producing remakes, reboots, reimaginings, sequels, prequels and franchise films–as the film industry continues its positive, surprisingly entertaining and excellent run of such films with Disney’s second remake of a beloved classic this year, the wholly sentimental, bittersweet, joyful and encouraging “Pete’s Dragon.”
“Pete’s Dragon”—a remake of a beloved Disney film musical classic of the same name from 1977—succeeds because the filmmakers obviously decided from the start just exactly what it was that they wanted to make, and they proceeded to make just that film, with no apologies, no irony, no in-jokes, no attempts at downplaying normalcy and sentimentality and no running away from that goal, which is simply to make a classic Disney family film. They decided to simply make, clichés be darned, a film that, yes, the entire family can enjoyably go see and not end up worrying about shielding their eyes from one single frame. The film wants to be a classic, old-style, old-fashioned Disney family film—akin to the incredible successful streak of such films that Disney continually released throughout the 1960s and 1970s—and, again, that is just what the film ends up being. And in this case, that’s a good thing: “Pete’s Dragon” will—cliches be darned again—make audiences laugh, cry, root for the good guys, boo and hiss at the bad guys, enjoy the simple lessons and morals and themes that are presented obviously and not hidden behind unclear psycho-babble, gobbledygook or auteur experimental filmmaking, love the lovable and adorable kids, completely love and adore the lovable and adorable lead dragon, Elliott (John Kassir, voicing the dragon with not words, but sounds and growls that elicit various emotions—not an easy acting or vocal feat), and shamelessly, but happily wallow in pure, good, down-home sentiment, wonder, joy and happiness with the film’s predictable, but welcome and satisfying, happy ending. That’s not a spoiler—if anyone thinks “Pete’s Dragon” was not going to end with a happy ending, they’re just not paying attention.
With so many—not all, not most, but certainly many–modern-day, non-animated, live-action films being so dark, gloomy, ironic, in-jokey, self-aware, sarcastic, negative-leaning, neurotic, frenzied and just plain afraid to openly embrace purely positive, upbeat sentiment, wonder, awe, joy and happiness on a Disneyesque, family-film level, it’s a welcome development to see a live-action film embrace so purely this type of approach. Is “Pete’s Dragon” clichéd, predictable, form-fitting, cookie-cutter and seemingly the same story that is also so successfully presented in the similarly Disneyesque, family-film-oriented modern-day animated films, as well as past animated films? Yes, of course it is—but through sheer filmmaking guts and courage and clear vision, as well as quality filmmaking, the new “Pete’s Dragon” works, despite these possible roadblocks and obstacles. The unabashed sentimentality and quality production, direction and acting overcome the predictability to, in the end, be an entertaining, positive, enjoyable live-action family film.
“Pete’s Dragon” follows other not-so-original-in-origin, but still good, films that have also succeeded on every filmic level in 2016 to form a roster of actually fun, funny and entertaining films based on prior works or prior franchises and series: “Captain America: Civil War,” “X-Men: Apocalypse,” “Star Trek Beyond,” “Ghostbusters,” “Alice Through the Looking Glass,” “Suicide Squad,” “The Jungle Book” and “Finding Dory.” Add to this successful list two other fresh-story films based on prior works, “The BFG” and “Deadpool,” and that’s one pretty good record for this area of filmmaking in 2016.
Yes, Disney has released two remakes of two of its prior, classic films in one year—Jon Favreau’s incredibly successful “The Jungle Book” remake, or reboot, from earlier in 2016, which was a remake of Disney’s animated film version of the story from 1967, and now “Pete’s Dragon,” which is a reboot of Disney’s 1977 live-action-and-animated musical version. As stated, if remakes, reboots and reimaginings can be made at the same level of this year’s “The Jungle Book” and “Pete’s Dragon,” and these other successful films, then it’s a tough argument to be against revisiting these filmic friends from the past.
The 2016 “Pete’s Dragon” is drastically different from the 1977 film, much as the 2016 “Ghostbusters” was actually quite different from the original 1984 film, also titled “Ghostbusters.” And the differences do not hurt the two “Pete’s Dragon” films, but actually help, as the new film is not just a tired, frame-for-frame remake, but a new film, with a fresh take, approach, setting, presentation, outlook, characters and story. There are enough differences that the new film can stand alone on its own, separate from—but still paying homage to, in a respectable manner—the 1977 film.
One major difference is that the equally-wholesome 1977 “Pete’s Dragon” was a musical, and the new film is a straight-ahead, dramatic film, with one main song that mainly acts as a transition and a soundtrack to some beautiful cinematography, but, overall, the new film is not a musical. In the original, the dragon was portrayed in obvious, all-clear-and-bright 1970s animation—as a clearly-animated character, which worked on one level in the context of that film at that time. In the new film, Elliott the dragon is portrayed more realistically, with beautiful, astounding, modern-day computer-generated-imagery technology that smoothly, easily presents the dragon as a living, breathing, touchable, non-animated character who exists right there with the humans as a lovable, heart-breaking, smart, but somewhat endearingly goofy, sympathetic creature. Human characters touch Elliott, are picked up by Elliott, embrace the dragon, and effortlessly side by side with him. These are the advantages of modern cinema special effects technology. Kudos and credits go to the continually-talented crewmembers at Weta Digital, Peter Jackson’s special effects company, for their great work in bringing Elliott to life.
Additionally, the 1977 film was set in the early 1900s. The new film is set in the early 1980s, although that’s not a major plot point, and you have to look carefully for ‘80s-style details, such as still playing records on an actual record player, certain wardrobe choices, and some slight nods to an earlier, pre-cell-phone, pre-computer, pre-internet, pre-texting, pre-social-media era, which increasingly is looking more and more like paradise and utopia and Xanadu. Additionally, the original film starred a roll-call cast of ‘70s-era (and before-‘70s-era, yes) top-tier actors, including Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, Mickey Rooney, Helen Reddy (!), Jim Dale and Charlie Callas. The new film provides a welcome showcase for the venerable and still-charismatic Robert Redford, gives the beautiful Bryce Dallas Howard one of her better, more sympathetic roles, presents two absolutely charming, adorable and cute child actors—Oakes Fegley and Oona Laurence—in solid, tear-inducing and impressive performances, and features talented young actors Karl Urban and Wes Bentley. But the characters in the new film are less personality-driven and less classic-show-business-oriented than the original cast. That’s nothing against the talented original cast—who can say anything negative about Shelley Winters, Red Buttons, Mickey Rooney, Jim Dale, Charlie Callas and Helen Reddy, even, for goodness’ sake—it’s just noting a completely different approach to characterization, acting and presentation among the two very different casts in the two differing films. And, finally, the 1977 film was set in Maine, and the new film travels across the country and is set in the Pacific Northwest (which was played by the beautiful countryside of New Zealand).
It must be noted that “Pete’s Dragon” is also another story about a feral boy in the woods or jungle—following the aforementioned “The Jungle Book” and this summer’s umpteenth film version of the Tarzan story, “The Legend of Tarzan”—yet another successful remake—and “Pete’s Dragon” is also another boy-or-man-who-cries-wolf story. Yet, again, the film manages to overcome these all-too-familiar stories, plots and characters, also.
The story centers around a feral—but entirely cute, approachable, lovable and adorable—boy, Pete, 10, who is found living in the woods, seemingly for years, by a local young girl, Natalie, 11 (a nice, cute Oona Laurence, understated and in control) and a local, dedicated park ranger, Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard, all nice and kind and motherly and caring, which works in this context), who are instantly taken by the boy. Pete, thankfully and somewhat originally, doesn’t immediately growl or grunt or throw things at Natalie and Grace, but rather looks at them with curiosity, interest and wonder. The boy had been raised by a family in a regular home earlier in life, and when he sees Natalie and Grace, some flashes of his earlier life come alive in his mind, and he is intrigued by these new, human folks. Who are they, where did they come from? However, yes, indeed, once Natalie and Grace try to take Pete under their care and into their home—and away from his best friend Elliott—Pete’s first, natural instinct is to immediately run away and back to the deep, dark woods, where he has always lived with Elliott, who helped raise, feed and protect Pete for years. The scenes showing Pete trying to escape this scary, frightening, modern, civilized world to get back to Elliott are suspenseful, well-done, action-packed, and even moving and emotional, as the viewer is torn by the separation of Pete and Elliott.
As Pete is found and as he escapes back to the woods, his discovery, capture and escape rouse the suspicions of the local group of moronic, not-so-smart, macho-impaired, and at times just plain stupid hunters and money-grabbers, who simply, dumbly and ignorantly seek to capture and ensnare Pete solely to make a quick buck—at the expense of the animal’s health and welfare, at the expense of the relationship between Pete and Elliott, and at the expense of nothing less than Mother Nature. And as those who remember the television commercials that aired during the general time of the original “Pete’s Dragon,” you don’t mess with Mother Nature. Pete is captured, he and Elliott are separated, the bad guys destroy everything good in their path, it’s up to Pete and Oona and Grace’s wonderful, understanding father, Mr. Meacham, to rescue and save Elliott and re-connect Elliott and Pete, and, in the end, there’s still time for Elliott to prove himself, be saved, re-connect with Pete, restore his standing, put down the bad guys, and save the day. Is all of that a spoiler? If you think so, you’re not paying attention. This is a classic, old-fashioned Disney film, remember.
Two performers—a wonderful Oakes Fegley as the endearing Pete and a bright-eyed, perpetually-smiling, still-glowing Robert Redford as Mr. Meacham, stand out in “Pete’s Dragon.” Oakes and Redford simply shine in every scene they are in. Oakes has a natural strong presence, movie-star good looks and the acting ability to show various emotions—always an achievement for such a young actor. And, he moves particularly well physically and athletically in numerous action scenes, running, jumping, leaping and climbing. Oakes commands the screen for most of the film, and it’s quite interesting to watch him interact with the dragon, which was obviously not really there, live and in person, for many of the scenes. Again, that’s just outstanding acting ability. Oakes is really the star of the film, and he carries the film. After Oakes, Redford quietly, classicly steals every scene he’s in, showing the reasons why he is the movie star that he has always been—a gleam in his eye, a quick laugh, that quick line-delivery that fools you into thinking it’s standard and normal, but it’s not, and just a presence that also commands the screen. It’s quite interesting to watch these two actors working their magic in this film—Oakes then, during filming, at the age of 11, and Redford then at the age of 78. To watch an enjoyable film with the two lead actors shining at these varied ages is akin to watching, say, Peter Ostrum and Jack Albertson in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” or Freddie Bartholomew and Spencer Tracy in “Captains Courageous.” Oakes and Redford are not really on screen together a great deal, and they don’t really interact side-by-side throughout the film, but these two talented actors do end up carrying the film.
Oakes, who is now 12, has already had an impressive roster of roles, films and plays, and producers and directors should provide him in the future with the opportunities to continue his successful streak in the wake of “Pete’s Dragon”—he is obviously a gifted, talented young actor who deserves more, continued, quality roles.
One interesting aspect of the story and characterizations in the new film’s screenplay, written by talented director David Lowery and screenwriter Toby Halbrooks, based on the original 1977 film’s screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein, is that Redford’s character is an adult, man-who-cried-wolf who has claimed for his entire life that he saw a dragon in the woods when he was a young boy. Of course, no one believes him, even his daughter, and he is comfortable with that, having given up long ago to get anyone—even his daughter—to believe his story. Thus, when Pete is found and taken in by Grace, Pete also tells a story about a dragon in the woods—and, of course, no one believes him—except Mr. Meacham. So to see the two main characters, played by the two main actors, connect as characters across generations, with both of them having their lives changed, impacted—and, in a way for both of them, filled with love—by a dragon, and both bound together by the knowledge that Elliott is indeed very real, is a nice plot device and that story aspect carries the film forward. And it’s nice to see the verification of their story, as the entire town and cast of characters—even the suspicious police—eventually actually see Elliott and come to realize that Elliott is real, that dragons exist—and that Pete and Mr. Meacham really did live with and see, respectively, a dragon in the woods.
And it’s that verification—presented in a straightforward manner by Lowery and Halbrooks in the script and through Lowery’s direction—that gives the film its upbeat fantasy strength. There’s no copping out on anyone seeing Elliott, there’s no mystery about whether Elliott is real or a figment of the imagination, there’s no grey area about the dragon. In “Pete’s Dragon,” dragons are real, everyone sees the dragon, and everyone comes to realize that there is indeed more to this world than that which is easily explainable.
The world, in real life as in the movies, does indeed contain a world of wonders, mysteries and magic. “Pete’s Dragon” sends a message that man needs to leave alone and not destroy those wonders, mysteries and magic, to not invade or ruin environments where man is not meant to be, and to recognize that sometimes in the world, protecting those wonders, mysteries and magic is far more important than the almighty dollar, fame and glory. The film provides a lesson that man must protect these wonders, mysteries and magic from their greatest enemy—man itself. “Pete’s Dragon” also sends a message about the everlasting, neverending importance of family—no matter the origin of that family. Whether it’s a big, lovable, furry green dragon caring for a young boy deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, or whether it’s a family of humans who genuinely care for and love each other, or whether it’s other forms of families, what matters is simply family. Mr. Meacham notes that Pete is the bravest boy he has ever met—and that is because Pete will do anything for Elliott, who he loves more than anything else in the world. To embrace, protect and fight for love is bravery, pure and simple. In “Pete’s Dragon,” Elliott the dragon and Pete the 10-year-old boy are family, they care for each other, and they love each other, forever and unconditionally, proving that love and family are two of the most important aspects of life. And if that’s the only lesson that filmgoers take away from the new “Pete’s Dragon,” then their time in the movie theater has been well-spent.