Pete’s Dragon (David Lowery, 2016)
If you are a fan of the original Pete’s Dragon, released in 1977, eager to see what the new version has to offer, know this: where that film trafficked in the kind of adorably silly vibe that was Walt Disney’s stock-in-trade at the time, the 2016 remake is most definitely a product of the second decade of the 21st century (post-Dark Knight), for better or for worse, with tragedy and sentiment interwoven in a sometimes successful, sometimes cloying mix. Elliott the dragon may still be an adorable magical guardian for the orphaned Pete, but the road to the happy conclusion is much more stressful now, and bad things happen to good people. Interestingly, this time around, the bad people suffer nary a scratch, which can frustrate those looking for a story where evil deeds lead to nasty punishment. Instead, though, director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) has redemption on his mind, underlined by the repeated calls to accept the glories of faith, spoken by, of all people, the Sundance Kid (a.k.a., Robert Redford). Nothing wrong with believing in something, but the heavy-handedness of those exhortations is part of what doesn’t work here; what does is the wonderful CGI main character, whose rumbling, if wordless, mournful baritone serves as moral soundtrack to this mixed-bag of an updated fable about loyalty and friendship.
As the film begins, the titular Pete (relative newcomer Oakes Fegley, perfectly acceptable) is not yet an orphan, though five minutes later he will be. As he wanders, bereft, through the woods, the local wolves (the most maligned creatures of the fairy-tale universe) sense an opportunity, but just before they pounce, something far bigger shows up. It’s a dragon, who rescues young Pete in a lovely moment that showcases the expressive power of modern animation, especially when combined with live action (nothing in the original came close). We flash forward 6 years, and now Pete and his caretaker/best friend, Elliott (named after a lost dog in Pete’s favorite book) have the woods (which look like they belong to the Pacific Northwest) to themselves. If the setup bears an unfortunate resemblance to that of two previous films released this year – first The Jungle Book (also from Disney) and then The Legend of Tarzan – that should hardly surprise, since Hollywood is as much addicted to repetition as to recycling. Speaking of the latter, one of the nicer additions that Lowery has made to his version is a strong ecological call to action: preserve and keep the wild in as pristine a state as possible.
Unfortunately, while the joyful romps through the forest are delightful, we need conflict, and this must take the form of other humans, none of whom are drawn with the same depth as Elliott and Pete. Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World) shows up as a forest ranger who has somehow missed seeing Elliott all these years; Robert Redford (All Is Lost, slumming it here), the film’s narrator, plays her father, whose dragon stories have long gone ignored; Oona Laurence (Lamb) is Howard’s daughter, and though she has done fine work in the past, is here relegated to one-dimensional emoting; Karl Urban (Star Trek Beyond), who can snarl like no other, makes a good villain, though perhaps too good, since his comeuppance (or, rather, lack thereof) is such a let-down. The rest of the cast, including Wes Bentley (Interstellar) as Howard’s milquetoast husband, are merely faces in a nondescript crowd. Since the screenplay demands that we invest our emotions in Pete’s necessary place in this world – rather than with Elliott – this is a narrative problem. Yes, ideally, we (mostly) belong with our own species, but this Pete’s Dragon fails to convince that these particular humans are up to the task. As a result, the final resolution, where dragon and boy each go their own way, feels even sadder than the accident that opens the movie. Let Pete have his dragon, dammit!