Find out with ScreenCritics Adam what he thinks of 2016’s ambitious Pete’s Dragon – is Disney on to another winning idea?
I can’t remember who said it, but one movie critic said that instead of remaking great movies we all love, we should remake bad movies and get it right this time. I completely agree. The amount of times I’ve reviewed a movie on this website that had so much potential and yet it ended up wasted for some reason is countless and they are the most frustrating reviews of all. So I’d be well up for a more talented film make to take a look years later and get it right that time. But will that be the case for Pete’s Dragon?
After his parents died in a car crash, Pete (Oakes Fegley, This Is Where I Leave You) has lived in the woods. However many years down the line he is found by Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, Jurassic World) who wants to solve the mystery of who exactly his friend Elliott is, especially as he’s the one that has kept Pete alive for so long.
When this got announced, people weren’t dreading it like they do with most Disney remakes, mainly as the first Pete’s Dragon was an awkward film which managed to get away with some of that because of its charm. However because the dragon is now live action, well CGI but that’s near enough, the film can actually be quite serious which I do appreciate. As much as we can try to make a kid living in the woods with a pet dragon magical, it would be seriously terrifying in real life and the kid would be messed up in some serious way. So tackling it this way feels like common sense film making and would also mark it out as something very different from the other Disney remakes. heck, it marks it out as a very different kids film! The last time a live action kids films has tried to be so serious and emotion was probably Bridge to Terabithia and that was released almost ten years ago. Oh god that was almost ten years ago, I’m so old.
And the emotional connection really does work. The film does plenty of work in the beginning to make sure we really care about the connection that Pete and the dragon, named Elliott, have. And it works. There’s an earnestness to the performance that Oakes Fegley puts in that makes you forget that Elliott is just a giant CGI creature, which many adult actors can’t do never mind a child. And when Pete meets Natalie (Oona Laurence, Southpaw), Grace’s daughter, there’s another great connection as he finally encounters someone the same age as him. This film works purely on the connections between the characters.
It also helps that the design of the dragon is great. It’s very different to most dragon designs as there is a complete lack of scales and Elliott instead seems to be covered in green moss. It makes sense though, as he’s been hiding in the woods and that would certainly work better as camouflage. Plus it’s much easier to empathize with a fur covered dragon than a scaly one, as the scaly dragons make us think of the beasts that dominate Game of Thrones and we’d probably struggle to think of the hunters as a threat if he was the more traditional design. I also like how the head of the dragon resembles a dog, just to push that vulnerability a little bit more.
I’ve just mentioned the hunters, but that’s the main thrust of the plot as Pete aims to defend his dragon from the hunters. This is a weakness of the film. Firstly, evil hunters is one of the biggest cliches you can have in this film and yes, this movie does aim to humanise them a bit. The lead of the hunters Gavin (Karl Urban, Dredd) does state that he feels that the dragon is a huge threat to the town because of size and ability to breathe fire, but it rings hollow because Elliott never does any damage, not even to the town. He seems pretty content to stay in his woods with Pete. Heck, as the film shows Elliott visually distressed because Pete is gone, you could have had a scene where he destroys some of the town because he’s looking for the young lad. It would make the hunters a bit more human, as they’d be panicking people rather than just vicious hunters.
And do you remember when I compared this film to Bridge To Terabithia close to the start of this movie? Well it applies also the other flaw the movie has which is an over reliance on over-sentimentality. This film really does want you to have an emotional reaction and that’s fine, the whole reason Marley and Me exists is to make you cry at the end but it’s still a decent flick regardless. No, the problem is that this film is a bit too obvious with it. The constant use of acoustic songs which would make John Lewis’ Christmas adverts cringe and the inspirational lines that come from Grace, it’s all designed to eke those tears out. And it’s just a little too obvious with what it wants to do, which means you aren’t going to cry, if only to spite the film.
This version of Pete’s Dragon is a massive improvement on the original, mainly because it knows exactly what it wants to do and that is a mature film aimed at kids, a hole in children’s entertainment which does need to be filled. And it fills it well, with the film being very well crafted and that dragon being very lovable. Yes there are issues with some of the clichés that filled kids films in the 1990s making an unwanted comeback, but your kids will be much better off for watching this than something like Norm of the North.