Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)
The audacity of Disney’s shrewd reboot business model eventually invokes a feeling of admiration, that is, after the seizure inducing eye-rolling and involuntary dry-heaving stops. Through the modern developments of CGI, Disney has realized—with a stunning and perfected practice of creative cynicism—that they can reimagine their known brands from the past into newer, glossier products for the now. It’s cheating in a way, though an argument can be made that fantasy tales can, and even should, have continuous renditions to renew a sense of wonder in our generation and the next with these familiar adventures. That prospect, however, is only valid if remakes do, in fact, bring back a childlike enchantment, which is a theory that is found wanting for evidence. Instead of remakes of magic, Disney’s track record has been turning their classic animations into relatively tiresome regurgitations, with varying degrees of success: Alice in Wonderland (2010), though profitable, was a disaster of adaptation, which never even came close to the cartoon’s even timid interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s surrealist novel; Maleficent (2014), the revisionist twist on the classic Sleeping Beauty (1959), became a muddled, one-dimensional character study that lacked any sort of intriguing enchantment; Cinderella (2015), the best of the remakes so far, was an elegant, though thoroughly familiar, execution that dutifully embraced the flair of old-fashioned magical storytelling; and The Jungle Book (2016), though remarkably crafted visually, was still a neutered version of Rudyard Kipling’s novel that inevitably felt hollow from the lack of natural settings. Despite the millions of dollars of budgetary funding and a shameless parade of films defined by brand recognition, it seems clear that conjuring magic twice for the same story isn’t as easy as it might seem.
But what about resurrecting a relatively forgotten product in an attempt to ignite magic for the first time? This, theoretically, should be the ideal equation when considering a remake: find films that either failed to generate a memorable quality or that need some routine quality enhancement, while also being unburdened by a cumbersome sentimental fandom that backlashes against retooling in any way, shape, or form. Disney has plenty of this kind of middling content, especially from their wandering years of live-action oriented entertainment between the death of Walt Disney (1966) to their purported renaissance that began with The Little Mermaid (1989). Some films within the long list of practically unrecognizable titles in that period might generate a nostalgic memory or two. But one thing is certain: no matter how fun any of them might have been through the lens of a child, not a single one of them are as impactful or as awe-inspiring as the studios’ productions in their formative years, whether it’s Bambi (1942), Pinocchio (1940), or even 101 Dalmatians (1961). One of these fateless films was Pete’s Dragon (1977), a decent, clumsy, and outdated live-action-animated hybrid done in horridly off-putting technicolor that might have some looking back on it with fondness, even though it lacked that true sense of wonderment that we should expect to define our timeless children’s fables. That lack of enchantment is actually a distinct advantage in remaking less popular material, mostly because expectations aren’t universally held by the public, but also because it creates a unique opportunity for creative authorship that isn’t anchored down by an expected devotion to narrative accuracy. You can fix what is already considered outdated or broken.
That’s the mentality that drives indie filmmaker David Lowery’s first big studio budget adaptation for Pete’s Dragon, which borrows the original’s initial concept of a boy and his dragon friendship and not much else. Everything from Malcolm Marmorstein’s screenplay for the 1977 film has been changed: the charming sea-swept Northeastern milieu has been transformed into a Pacific Northwest logging community; the orphanage of the title character isn’t one of self-defiance, but instead one of sorrowful tragedy; and the cute, gangly hand-drawn dragon has been turned into a soulful mythic entity through the well-executed movie magic of computer-generated imagery (CGI). Lowery, and screenwriting partner Toby Halbrooks, seem to have set out with the intention to create something quite unrecognizable to most modern audiences, which is the timeless folksy children’s fable; a faint whisper of imagination that resonates loudly with those still possessing a bit of their childhood innocence. It’s a beautiful homage to the unapologetic family films that made Disney such a powerful influence on the fantasies of the young, and it’s a style that, in these overloaded cinematic times, is as mythic and rare as the very creature that rests at the heart of its story. What could have become a desperate turn at brand revival has been kept tamed in ambition and delicate in execution, turning an outdated and indistinctive film into a sincere and understated testament about the bonds of friendship and the longing for family. Had Lowery’s adaptation been released in the heyday of conventional family cinema it would have been indistinguishable from the majority of its ilk. But, because it has been released in our action fetishized culture, it becomes something rather unique and distinct in comparison to its modern competition, because it chooses intimacy over self-indulgence, gracefulness over soaring action, and a careful mix of reality and imagination over wish-fulfillment fantasy.
Before Pete’s Dragon takes its stride in conventional fantasy, it opens on a bold tragic note with the sudden death of Pete’s parents in a tasteful and slow-motion car accident. The idea or theme of loss, consequence, or even tragedy seem to be becoming an extinct component in children’s entertainment, where studios are placing their predictable wagers on a baseline audience of indiscriminate, ADD addled children and their reluctant chaperons. Experiencing this loss through the point of view of Pete easily ignites our sympathy, which is ever more accentuated when he almost immediately befriends another lost orphan in the form of Elliot: an exceptionally large green-furred dragon, whose leonine features and expressive sounds make him the adorable equivalent of an overgrown puppy. Despite the overabundance of CGI to the point of almost numbed appreciation, where the special in “special effects” doesn’t necessarily mean what we think it means anymore, hope can still be generated when an occasional film reignites a beautiful sense of wonderment in their artificial creations. And thanks to Weta Digital and supervisor Eric Saindon, Elliot is one of those creations. In comparison to his original 1977 conception—a misshapen and clumsy green gentle giant with streaks of pink in his hair and wings—this Elliot is a fully-green soulful and goofy plush toy who, even towering at twenty-four feet tall and having the ability to breathe fire, seems like the biggest cuddle buddy a boy could ask for. Though he’s a fully digital creation, Elliot matches, on equal measure, the expressiveness of his counterpart Pete (Oakes Fegley), which in turn creates a genuine friendship and connection that becomes the poetic and tender heart of the film.
This is all rather fitting for a film that wants to carefully blur the lines between what is imaginary and what is reality with a folktale sincerity. Lowery—who came to cinematic prominence with his poetically visual Americana allegory Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013)—relishes in the idea of mythmaking, and how our stories, no matter how fantastical, can be real depending on how much we believe in them. Before we hear the sagacious fable musings of Meacham (Robert Redford), the local woodcarver who tells the children of Millhaven about a mythical dragon that lives deep in their adjacent woods, we’ve already seen this elegant beast in the actual fur. No one really believes the old man, maybe not even the amused children, but especially not his rationalist daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) who, as a park ranger, ventures those very woods on the daily and has never witnessed such a creature. Grace—whose character was intentionally given a religiously themed name—will be the one who sees her rationality put into question after coming across Pete in the woods and hearing of his imaginary friend Elliot. Belief and faith, the ability to accept something despite the availability of evidence, is a powerful tool, but doubt can be even more powerful; a barrier or blindness to enlightenment that perhaps comes when adulthood relinquishes our connection to youthful innocence. Grace comes to believe in Pete, and therefore begins to believe in Elliot, seeing an erosion of doubt that inevitably connects the faith of her father’s legends to the magical reality that defines Pete’s existence. It’s a warming sentiment—one that could arguably be considered overly saccharine—but it’s reminiscent of a Spielbergian quality that hasn’t been regularly evident in modern cinema.
But unfortunately, not everything ends up working in Pete’s Dragon, at least not everything integral to the momentum of the plot. Certainly the themes of belief, the emerging familial dynamic of Grace as a surrogate mother to Pete, and the central bond of friendship have significant weight, but the film as a whole doesn’t seem to propel itself forward in a fully engaging manner. Though it’s labeled as an adventure—a point that’s even specifically mentioned in dialogue early on in the film—it’s a rather mundane one, or perhaps a more modest one. There’s a focus on the intimacy between the characters and the connections they forge through their shared belief in the dragon, and in doing so a credible antagonism fails to make its way into the dramatic fold. The walking cliché of a villain, if you can call it that, is represented by Gavin (Karl Urban), the brother of Grace’s fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley), who simply wants to hunt down Elliot in order to get a name for himself beyond the routine of his wood logging life. Laudably he doesn’t become some tiresome symbolic representative of environmental greed or callous self-interest (he actually does care more about his brother than his ambitions in the end), but still, there’s not much there to give it a proper dramatic push. But perhaps the film’s full embrace of folksy humility is the point: a confident refusal to conform to the modern expectations of adventure cinema. Too much conflict might have ended up betraying the film’s tender spirit. There’s a warmth that the film generates that seems all too rare to completely invalidate it with plot minutiae, even though a fully rounded script could have turned it into an immediate classic.
The true triumph of Pete’s Dragon, however, is the fact that a studio, especially an overbearing one such as Disney, allowed such an understated and unassuming fantasy tale to be told. In an era of bloated big budget monstrosities that never have breathing room for character, development, or thematic resonance, Lowery’s adaptation of the 1977 original is quite the rarity, despite having some defects that keep it from being truly great. But what’s inspiring here is that Lowery avoided the fate of many indie filmmakers who have turned to big-budget studio projects: he preserved his unique creative voice (just look at the recent unfortunate transitional outcomes for Colin Trevorrow, Gareth Edwards, and Johnathan Liebesman). It’s Lowery’s authorship that keeps the film contained in its humble storytelling, and even though there’s a template to follow, the indie filmmaker keeps his personal visual touches to keep the contained myth intimate (whether it’s the perspective shots of Pete on top of the bus, viewing the world anew for the first time, or a beautifully framed shot of Elliot breathing fire on top of a suspension bridge). Studios tend to subvert and conform their directorial staff in the name of brand recognition and familiarity (think Disney with Marvel), but Pete’s Dragon, though traditionally formulaic, defies this expectation by embracing an old-fashioned methodology to telling a warm, folksy fable with plenty of morals to consider. It isn’t necessarily heart-pounding in excitement, but that’s because the film has no interest in pandering. Instead, it seeks to deliver a sincere reflection on the magic of faith, family, and friendship that’s about as comforting as hearing old tales being told around a summer night campfire surrounded by those close to you. Now that’s true nostalgia.