I never would’ve expected a movie like Pete’s Dragon to be so divisive in reviews, but here we are with many critics lavishing it with praise and a few grumpy stalwarts like me far less impressed. While there was plenty of enticing adventure, beautiful cinematography, and winks to the original to keep even the most uninvested viewer interested, the combination of underdeveloped characters, fizzled out action sequences, and not enough story to span a nearly two hour running time left me unimpressed.
Pete’s Dragon is a very loose remake of the 1977 part live-action, part animated Disney musical of the same name. Both tell stories of a young orphan boy named Pete who encounters a dragon named Elliott and eventually taken in by a kindly woman. Other than that, the two movies couldn’t be more different. In the remake, Pete (Oakes Fegley) escapes a car crash that kills his parents and is rescued by Elliott. The two spend six years happily living in the woods enjoying their “boy and his dog” companionship. Pete spots Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) on her Ranger rounds, then lumberjack brothers Jack (Wes Bentley) and Gavin (Karl Urban) when their logging business encroaches deep in the woods. Pete and Elliott are forcibly separated and yearn to be reunited once more.
To give credit where credit is due, Pete’s Dragon is a gorgeous movie. One of David Lowery’s inspirations for the way they handled cinematography in the forest scenes was the recent seventeenth century Puritan horror film The Witch, and it shows. The swaying, towering conifers, the eerie silence with shocks of distant sounds, the way the light and shadows compete for dominance, it’s stunning. For adults, the woods are haunting and frightening place full of mystery and suspense, but to those who grew up amongst the trees like Grace and Pete, it feels like a world of magic and life. The picturesque mountains soar majestically over the quaint, postcard lumber town of Millhaven. Lowery establishes a genteel world where the frights are low key and everything can be solved with a hug.
Like its predecessor, Pete’s Dragon is charmingly out of time. All the technology is at least 30 years old and the nurses look like they stepped out of a Norman Rockwell painting. There are no computers or cell phones and the clothing is delightfully non-specific to any particular decade post 1960. And unlike the 1977 version, the 2016 one is wonderfully diverse. Even Pete’s beloved picture book features a Black family. There’s also a heavy layer of sugar coating to mask the darkness. And here’s where my first issue with the remake lies. Lowery insists on the reality of this world he’s created, but shies away from any of the actual realism. Pete lives in idyllic woods where he never goes hungry or gets cold or sick, and everything is fun and frolic. He romps shoeless through dense forest and encounters no obstacle that can’t be overcome with a mighty howl.
Pete’s background in the original was downright terrifying. He was slave to the Gogans; they had a whole song and dance number about how they have a bill of sale declaring their legal right to do whatever the hell they want to him. Nora’s lover is presumed dead at sea and her father a drunken fool. Doctor Terminus and Hoagy plot to catch Elliott and sell him off piece by piece. There is no evil in the remake, no threats to life and limb, no danger. Save the heartbreaking opening scene where Pete’s parents are tragically killed, any hints at darkness are waved away as quickly as they’re introduced.
The acting in the remake is superb. Although the adults aren’t given much to do, Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, and Robert Redford do it very well. Oona Laurence did a lovely job as Natalie, a character who really only exists to give Pete a peer to interact with. As the star, Oakes Fegley had to do a lot of heavy lifting and while he didn’t always succeed he made a valiant effort. On the other hand, all of the characters are defined by one or two all-encompassing emotions, and none of the actors quite surpass that limitation. By forcing the adults to remain as one-note characters, they become more plot points than people.
In a good children’s story, adults serve as examples or role models. Whether villain or hero, an adult demonstrates “good” and “bad” behavior so a child learns what’s appropriate and inappropriate. Grace is never more than a substitute mother figure for Pete, Meacham a kindly grandpappy, and Gavin…well, who knows what’s up with that dude. Ostensibly Gavin is the bad guy but his villainy amounts to vague plans about capturing Elliott and making money off him somehow. Without clear goals, the stakes are low and the dramatic tension non-existent. This translates to the action sequences as well, which tend to build then peter out (pun intended) before anything serious happens.
Elliott is impeccably rendered, remaining firmly between being cartoonish and the uncanny valley. However, I couldn’t get a handle on him as a character. Giving him human-esque eyes was a bit weird to me. It felt like the movie was trying to give him the appearance of sentience except it also kept insisting he was basically Pete’s big green dog reacting to his master’s emotional state. By the end the characters seemed to settle on Elliott being an animal, but one that apparently understands complex sentences and abstract concepts. On top of that, Elliott is riddled with battle scars and the movie’s scariest and most life-threatening moments don’t come from the villain but Elliott himself. His relationship to Pete suggests he’s an oversized cuddly puppy, but then there are those massive scars that look like claw marks and his sharp, carnivore/predator fangs that suggest he can be pretty monstrous when he wants to be.
Honestly, the worst thing I can say about this movie is that when I walked out of the theatre, I felt nothing. Say what you will about the 1977 original (and I adore it in all of its silly nonsense) but this remake was as hollow as its dramatic tension. This was a short story stretched thin enough to become almost inconsequential. Worse, there was no heart, no soul. One of the things I dislike about most contemporary children’s movies is that they tend to be little more than time killers. Unless Pixar or Disney animation is involved, they are generally aimed at giving parents a way to spend a couple of inoffensive, family friendly hours with their rambunctious kids rather than impart a lesson or teach a moral. There was nothing to learn from the new Pete’s Dragon. If you squint, you can probably find a morsel of “family is what you make it,” but where the original make that exceptionally explicit the remake is more enraptured with imagineering dragon snot. Some viewers have latched onto themes of family and community, but I didn’t grok it at all.
The remake of Pete’s Dragon is a fine movie, it’s just not the movie I wanted. There are certainly worse ways for your kids to burn through the end of summer vacation, but it’s never going to be that movie a kid goes back to again and again. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen the original—easily in the hundreds—but in a few years I will probably forget the remake ever existed.
Alex Brown is a teen librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.