*This film was seen at a press screening graciously hosted by Disney.*
The following review was written by my father, Kevin. It felt absolutely necessary for him to see this film, coming from his childhood where he held the original so dear.
My son Nate was gracious enough to pass this screening on to me as the movie of topic is close to the heart for me. One of my earliest memories of my mother, was her taking me to see Pete’s Dragon on a cold Fall day in 1977. As my kids often remind me, yes I am getting old.
The original Pete’s Dragon, was typical Disney fare for the day. It combined traditional animations with live actors. The animation itself was the work of Don Bluth and his band of Disney animators, who eventually left Disney and spawned such classics as The Secret of NIMH, An American Tail, All Dogs Go to Heaven, and my kid’s favorite Titan A.E. The original Pete’s Dragon was also a sing-a-long. Yes, every scene was comprised of a song or two.
Drop your hat, sing a song about dropping your hat. Hanging out with your best friend and dragon, sing a song on how much you love him. Lose your fiancé out at sea, sing a song about candles. This is why the cast of the original had such names as Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney, and Red Buttons. They were at-the-time A list talent that were versed in song, dance, and stage/screen acting.
The original story itself was set in early 20th century New England, and involved a young boy named Pete, who of course had a friend named Elliot that happened to be a dragon. A large, green cartoon dragon with pink/purple wings. Pete was a foster runaway that, with the help of Elliot, was escaping the harsh life of his foster family. He ends up in the fictional east coast town of Passamaquoddy, where he meets Nora (Reddy). The daughter of the town’s crazy lighthouse keeper, Lampie (Rooney). Trouble ensues after a traveling con-man name pete’s Terminus tries to capture Elliot for the sake of selling medicines. The movie was cute, and I will admit, I forced my mom to buy the LP/album storybook, and sang along to it for years.
Fast forward 39 years later to this year’s Pete’s Dragon. In an effort to renew/rebrand/reimagine almost everything about my childhood (all things Marvel, Star Wars, Muppets, etc.), Disney has brought Pete’s Dragon in to a modern format. Repackaged without the sing-along aspect, Pete’s still has the family fantasy component in mind. At the helm, Director David Lowery, sets out to “reinvent” the story, rather than just modernizing the 1977 tale. Instead of turn of the century east coast town of Passamaquoddy, you have the northwest town of Millville, which incidentally is set in 1977. Instead of Reddy’s Nora, you have Bryce Dallas Howard’s Grace. Instead of Rooney’s Lampie, you have Robert Redford’s Meacham. Logging instead of lighthouse operations. Et cetera, et cetera. The premise is also revamped, as Pete is no longer a runaway, he is orphaned and lost in the woods from the onset of the movie. Also to note, the original’s underlying message was about alcoholism, the modern day take is about loss, bravery, and discovery.
As mentioned, the plot in itself finds Pete lost and lonely in the woods after the death of his parents, and is immediately taken in by the legendary Millville dragon. A local myth that Meacham is known for telling town children in his spare time. Span six years later, and Pete has become a sort of northwest Tarzan, and has named the Dragon Elliot, after a character in his childhood book. The moments between Pete and Elliot are charming, as up-and-coming child actor, Oakes Fegley, does a wonderful job of conveying every emotion that the script needs him too. Try and not get “something in your eye” when he does the wolf howl. Fegley does an amazing job of keeping you in the moment with his co-stars as well. Beyond Fegley, you have Oona Laurence’s Natalie, the soon-to-be step-daughter to Grace. She too shows a rough-around-the-edges approach to acting. Both young actors chew up every scene they are in together, and give you those “aww” moments you are looking for in a family film. Both are incredibly fascinating to watch.
Child actors aside, the grown-ups do a decent job with the script, and play typical two-dimensional characters that fill up scenes of movies like this one. Robert Redford’s Meacham is the town pseudo-crazy old man that loves to tell fables about a dragon he saw once as a young man, and no one believes him, not even his daughter Grace. Bryce Dallas Howard portrays a park ranger with a fiancé in the logging business, and the movie dabbles at the nuances such an arrangement would make. Howard is a wonderful actress, with a wide range, however I felt that she was coasting on that talent in just a few scenes, but overall delivered what was needed of her. Karl Urban plays the modern day misunderstood bad guy, and brother to Wes Bentley’s Jack, mill owner and Grace’s fiancé. Both Urban and Bentley give you a quick sense of family, and Urban displays his uncanny sense of humor seen in the newer Star Trek movies. However, I felt that Bentley’s Jack did not have enough screen time for character development, or the film makers did not know exactly what to do with him in regards to the storyline.
The bones of the film are decent, with some pacing issues in the first half, but quickly pickup once Pete is taken in by Grace. The plot devices used in the modern day version are reminiscent of movies like E.T. and Harry and the Hendersons, but with Director David Lowery’s touch. Boy/girl/family finds creature, boy/girl/family bond with said creature, public finds out about creature, chase of boy/girl/family ensues, goodbyes between all parties, bittersweet happiness, et cetera. The touching moments are mixed in throughout the film, with some surprisingly funny moments, and definitely helped with the initial pacing issues.