No studio has mastered the art of establishing a brand better than Walt Disney Pictures, and much of this can be traced back to the creativity and imagination of its founder Walt Disney. He helped introduce iconic animated characters to generations of children while also making cartoons more respectable for adults.
In hindsight, the original Pete’s Dragon from 1977 was pretty cheesy, as one of the studio’s later efforts following Disney’s passing. It mixed live-action with hand-drawn animation, but with much less success than Song of the South (1946), Mary Poppins (1964), and even Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971).
Now, on the 50th Anniversary of Walt Disney’s death, the mix of CG characters with flesh and blood actors has become so prevalent one assumes it may have lost some of its magic. Yet, in the case of Pete’s Dragon, the mix of the two styles is used quite well to tell a story of ordinary people whose lives are affected by the fantastic.
We meet the Pete (Oakes Fegley) of the title when he’s a five-year-old boy in the back of his parents’ car reading his favorite book, Elliot Gets Lost. When their car crashes, he ends up in the Pacific Northwest woods of Millhaven where he encounters a large bashful dragon. Six years later, Pete and the dragon he names Elliot have helped each other to survive until they’re discovered by a girl named Natalie (Oona Laurence), and Pete is taken in by a ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard). Howard’s father (Robert Redford) also knows the tales of a dragon living in the woods.
Other characters include Natalie’s father Jack (Wes Bentley), who is also Grace’s fiancé, and his brother Gavin (Karl Urban) who is obsessed with capturing the mythic Millhaven Dragon.
It’s a pretty simple set-up for a movie that sadly doesn’t have enough real plot development to keep things interesting. Once you’ve seen Elliot, there isn’t much mystery on whether or not the humans of the area will eventually learn about his existence. Elliot isn’t the scary type of dragon seen in Game of Thrones or The Hobbit either, but more of a furry, cuddly green puppy dog of a beastie who is protective of Pete. And yet, for much of the movie, everyone else is either scared of Elliot or trying to hunt him down and capture him.
There’s a great Yiddish word that can be used to describe Pete’s Dragon, and that word is “schmaltzy” or “excessively sentimental,” because that’s exactly what the movie is. Sometimes you’re in the mood for some “schmaltz”—maybe the world has gotten you down and you need something like this to pick you back up–but more often, this sort of sweetness and sentimentality can just wear one down, maybe because it’s so unrealistic.
But it’s hard to completely hate on a movie that tries to instill magic and wonder into the children that may be as fascinated by the premise as kids were back in 1977. Also to his credit, David Lowery does an impressive job changing gears from his earlier indie thriller Ain’t Them Body Saints to make a movie that fits well into the Disney mold.
The most impressive aspect of the movie is Elliot himself, who is quite an achievement of CG creature animation that interacts fluidly with the live actors. The decision not to have Elliot talk, as in the original movie, was probably a wise decision, since that might have taken away from any plausibility, although this means Elliot has to do a lot more physically to express emotions. Kudos to the animators who bring as much character to Elliot as the actors opposite him. (Probably a wiser decision was to not include musical numbers in the remake as there were in the 1977 movie.)
At times, the movie tends to drag, maybe because Lowery is trying to create a character drama about the relationships between normal people, while still throwing in a few fast-paced chase sequences of Elliot being pursued by hunters. The change in pacing is quite jarring at times but without those action sequences, Pete’s Dragon might put some audiences to sleep.
Ultimately, Pete’s Dragon is perfectly fine family fare, although the amount of wonder that overcomes everyone onscreen will only be commensurate with the viewer’s ability to set aside their own cynicism.
Pete’s Dragon opens nationwide on Friday, Aug. 12.