Film Review: Pete’s Dragon is an improved modern upgrade of a mediocre 70s Disney flick

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In 1977, Disney made a film that combined live-action and animation called Pete’s Dragon. It starred reliable ol’ Mickey Rooney along with Red Buttons and Shelley Winters. It actually contained a decent cast and the animation was cute but honestly, it was a film that didn’t do great with critics at the time (but did well in theatres) and didn’t really make an impact like some of the more popular Disney films that have been released. Much like The Jungle Book earlier this year, it was also pegged for a remake and again with more of a realistic approach. The question now was would it be as successful as the Jungle Book remake and would it excel in the special effects department as well? I ventured to the theatre to find out the answer for YOU, reader.

The film’s story is essentially the same framework as the original but the details of the story elements are quite different. Young Pete (Oakes Fegley) is in a horrible car crash that ends up killing both of his parents but he is somehow able to survive it. As he crawls through the woods to escape a pack of ravenous wolves, he meets a friendly dragon that he ends up naming Elliot. Six years later, Pete is discovered by a lumberjack crew and a friendly park ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) along with her boyfriend Jack (Wes Bentley) and Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban). Eventually, the dragon is discovered and Pete and Elliot must fight against Gavin’s insatiable urge to capture the dragon and profit from it while Grace and her husband attempt to help the young boy and his best friend.

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I enjoyed all of the acting in the film from everyone! Oakes Fegley is a real find for the film as Pete. This isn’t his first film but definitely his first lead role and he knocks it out of the park. It’s hard to find great child actors and this film has two! Oona Laurence, who you might know as the daughter from Bad Moms and Southpaw is believable and compelling as Natalie. Her chemistry with Fegley is terrific. We get some mighty fine acting from the adults too. I’ve always been a fan of Bryce Dallas Howard and she was on-point here. The emotional moments from her were great and she had chemistry with everyone she appeared on-screen with including (among others) the great Robert Redford, who plays her father. Redford is affable and very likeable as he tells tall tales (at least we think they’re “tall” at first) and often hopes that people will open their minds. Maybe on the lesser end but still decent we have Karl Urban as Gavin, who sees the dragon as an opportunity more than a living creature. Urban is a good actor and he does well here with the villain character and makes him a little more likeable than you would typically see in a movie like this. Wes Bentley is almost in a thankless role as the supportive boyfriend but he’s another solid actor so he makes the most of what he’s got and does well enough.

When I wasn’t an emotional wreck during this film, I had a smile on my face for nearly the entire duration of the film. It’s simply lovely and my fears were put to rest once I saw how meticulously crafted the actual dragon was as were the special effects in general. The small-town approach to the film is really interesting and I also enjoyed how it was a period piece. Much of the film takes place around 1983. That really gives the film another element too because they can’t simply reach people by cell phone or look up information on a computer. I can’t quite put my finger on it but it simply helps the film and the story that is being told. I don’t know if I would put the CGI quite on par with the Jungle Book but it is pretty flawless and the dragon always looks and feels like a live, breathing creature.

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The creation of the dragon is quite stunning too. Since the film also made the choice to not have their animal character talk (thank God), it must communicate with roars, grunts and facial expressions but also not go too outside the realm of believability so that we always remember that it is an animal and not a person. It accomplishes that in spades. We see Elliot being silly and playing games with Pete by disappearing and reappearing but we also see him with a somber expression and sometimes aggressive towards those who would try to take his home or hurt Pete. For the young ones, there are some fairly distressing scenes involving the dragon but I think it’s fairly tame and appropriate for pretty much anyone to go and see it.

It is a well-written film. The script keeps things fairly basic but it should be noted that it does that in a way that is appropriate to this kind of film. Whereas a terrible movie like Nine Lives just didn’t know what it was doing half the time and kind of flopped all over the place, Pete’s Dragon has just the right pacing so that it never feels long or that it lingers too much on any scenes. The pacing is actually very tight and we learn most of the story alongside the action rather than having it explained to us which to some may not sound like a big deal but it makes all the difference in the world when watching a film. We get a typical villain in the form of Karl Urban’s brother character but he is not as one-dimensional as you might expect him to be and at least reacts to a situation in a fairly acceptable way. That’s not to say he isn’t a bad guy but he’s not a megalomaniac who just does things because he’s evil.

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I also quite liked the relationships that formed between characters in the movie. Pete and Elliot are obviously wonderful together but I also enjoyed the one between Pete and Natalie (Jack’s daughter) as two children raised in obviously very different ways but it’s a sort of teacher/student dynamic that I thought was nice. Pete’s interactions with Grace are also quite good but the one for her that sticks out to me is that of Grace and her father. Redford can play roles like this in his sleep but I really bought their father/daughter relationship and I enjoyed how she doesn’t exactly shoot down his wild notions of seeing a dragon but she isn’t on board either. You get the sense that there is a strong connection between the two without the need for the film to talk down to its audience and explain that.

It’s a really nice film and one that everyone at any age level can enjoy.

****

 

Rating System:

* (Brutal; the worst rating)

** (Some elements keep it from being awful but still not very good)

*** (Completely watchable; a rental as old-timers might say)

**** (Great film with a few things here and there keeping it from being perfect)

***** (Flawless; a true achievement)