Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

dragonDisney’s remake of Pete’s Dragon (1977), a musical that combined live action with a whimsically animated dragon named Elliot, is sure to rake in money, money, money by the pound. There’s little resemblance between the two films. Elliot, of course, is now a marvel of CG graphics, a kid-friendly and heartwarming character who is more golden retriever than reptile. And in case anyone questions the change, the script backs it up by inserting a children’s book — Pete’s last remaining tangible reminder of the family he lost in a car crash — about a lost puppy named Elliot.

The movie opens with a family driving through a forest somewhere in the Pacific Northwest; five-year-old Pete is looking forward to his first camping adventure. But tragedy strikes: a deer bounds across the road, Dad swerves, and the car flips. Pete’s parents are killed in the crash. The boy picks up his backpack and storybook, and wanders into the woods, where he is saved from a pack of wolves by the appearance of an enormous furry green dragon.

Fast forward about five years. Pete (Oakes Fegley) has survived with Elliot’s help and friendship. The two have made themselves a nice home and spend their days frolicking in the forest.

But loggers are encroaching. Brothers Jack (Wes Bentley) and Gavin (Karl Urban) own a local logging business. They grew up listening to the tall tales of an outdoorsman named Meacham (Robert Redford), who tells exaggerated and frightening stories of the time he saw a dragon in the woods. His daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) has never taken him seriously, but has inherited his love of the outdoors. She has become a forest ranger, and is engaged to be married to Jack.

Jack’s daughter, 10-year-old Natalie (Oona Laurence), accidentally discovers Pete in the woods. In the ensuing commotion, Pete is injured and brought back to town unconscious. From there are launched the questions that drive the film: can the somewhat wild young Pete find himself a new family? And what will become of Elliot?

The plot is simple and predictable (it’s a Disney movie — you know they’re not going to go tragic on you). The opening scene, for all its horrendous implications, lacks emotional depth, as if all that mattered was to show how Pete and Elliot meet, rather than to explore Pete’s loss. (This many be just as well for younger viewers, for whom a realistic scene of being suddenly orphaned would be too much to handle.)

And similarly, the characters are mostly stock. Grace is all gentle earnestness, living up to her name. Meacham is the wizened old man who gets to play hero and relive the lost magic of his childhood. Gavin is the requisite villain of the piece, headstrong and reckless in his pursuit of Elliot. As such, he’s less cartoonish than the original’s Dr. Terminus, who dreams of making “money by the pound” by hacking Elliot into pieces to make quack medical potions. And there are hints of character possibilities: Gavin is the grown-up version of the child who was frightened by Meacham’s stories, and is capable of realizing that he was wrong. But the hints are brushed aside. The main characters, after all, are the titular ones: Pete and his dragon.

Fegley brings Pete to life with endearing energy. It’s unfortunate that this film comes too soon after Disney/Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur,  for the sight of a howling feral child and his big green friend feels more derivative than fresh. Still, Fegley gives his all, and is matched by a surprisingly believable Elliot. Their friendship gives the script a solid emotional core.

That’s the magic of Disney. You’ve walked down this narrative road a hundred times before, but you’re still glad you did. In my opinion, no serious parental advisory is needed, save for children on the emotionally sensitive side. The orphan scene is intentionally muted; Elliot shows his fiery side but is never truly frightening; and the one scene of impending doom has the expected Disney ending. By the end, there are no bad guys and no tragedy, only a celebration of family and friendship.

And I predict that in the coming weeks and months, all across America, new puppies will be given the name Elliot.