Pete’s Dragon is a tremendous disappointment – not because it’s bad, mind you – it’s a very functional movie – but because it has all the impact power of a whiffle bat, and it had all the elements it needed to be better. So much about this film goes right. Like a good remake should, it takes the basic premise of the 1977 original and gives it a unique and thoughtful twist. Forgoing any callback imagery, it avoids cheap nostalgia buttons to act as its own thing.
This version follows the formula only in the broadest beats. An orphan named Pete with a dragon friend named Elliot crosses paths with the residents of a small town. One family’s fate intertwines with Pete’s as he struggles to keep Elliot safe from the threat of mankind. The story deals with some heavy situations but seems to be arranged to evoke as little suspense as possible. Intense moments are diffused by overly calm performances, dialogue to excuse dramatic measures, obscured threats, and quick resolutions. It’s as if the film is apologetic for its PG rating and is trying its hardest not to startle the G level crowd it was intended for. Even the humor seems poised to elicit only the tiniest of chuckles. Thank goodness. I’d hate to pull a muscle while laughing.
Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, and Karl Urban are all… fine. They’re all giving performances that seem customized not to startle anybody. Oakes Fegley is probably the most impressive as Pete, but that’s because he’s the only one who’s allowed any range or emotional investment in the story. If there’s anything truly authentic about this film, it’s his love for that big CG dragon.
Speaking of Elliot, to my taste he’s not as charming as the kooky original, but he’s far more likable than I feared. One of the problems is that, in this version, Elliot can’t speak, even in a gibberish language that only Pete can understand. Elliot is essentially a giant, hyper-intelligent dog, so it changes the dynamic of their relationship. That said, he’s animated beautifully, and emotes honestly. My concerns about the travesty of a computer animated Elliot have officially been put to rest.
Aesthetically, the film is well shot, but incredibly, shockingly dark. This wasn’t helped by the dimness of my crappy local theater’s 3D screening, but my goodness does this film’s cinematography try to lull you to sleep. The film primarily takes place in a forest, during overcast days, or at night. There are a few majestic shots of Pete riding Elliot into glowing skies that are used heavily in the film’s marketing, but these aren’t at all indicative of the film’s overall feel. It’s a far cry from the cheery, Brazzle Dazzle Days of the original, and it certainly never has any moments as sweet or beautiful as Helen Reddy’s ‘I’ll Be Your Candle on the Water.’ And I say this all as someone not overly fond of musicals.
The ’77 Pete’s Dragon was overlong and more than a little cheesy, but it had heart, humor, and gumption. Its absurd, cartoonish villains felt like more authentic threats than any of the more believable ones of the remake. This film, while well assembled and intentioned, has too much of an “Oh, you poor thing” treatment of its audience. It undermines any reasonable sense of drama, and without that, why even bother?
3D Recommendation: The film’s 3D is on the shallow side and the film only really has a handful of moments that justify the use of the format. You also run a significant risk of a dark film being even darker if your local theater is too cheap to brighten their screen properly to offset the 3D effect. That said, this 3D is REMARKABLY clean considering it is set in a forest. Foliage is notoriously difficult to convert to 3D, but there were no noticeable instances of decayed clarity, warped edges, or blobby clumps of leaves. So, if you’re a fan of the premium format, and you have a good theater, the 3D will only benefit your experience.