The original 1977 Pete’s Dragon is one of those Disney movies I must have watched every week for most of my early grade school years. I suspect our videocassette copy must have snapped apart out of sheer exhaustion. Upon revisiting the film recently, I was embarrassed by my childhood adoration of it. While the Helen Reddy/Mickey Rooney musical has charming animation, some nice songs and a big heart, it’s terribly corny and wall-to-wall with clunky slapstick.
In the 2016 version, Bryce Dallas Howard stars as Grace, a plucky forest ranger who discovers Pete, a young boy (played by Oakes Fegley), who’s been living in the wilderness by himself for years. Grace’s father (Robert Redford) has long believed the forest hides a dragon. The boy confirms that this is not only true but that the dragon in question, named Elliot, can fly.
The new Pete’s Dragon is perfect for its intended audience, as there’s ample dragon footage and no dull scenes that will make children antsy. Elliot the dragon is so life-like, adorable and touching, the movie succeeds in making us believe in him as fully as Pete does. This movie knows what it has and showcases Elliot often. In fact, some of the best moments are quiet scenes in which Elliot is alone in the woods.
The edginess present within the story has been softened in an odd way. Instead of a consistent orchestral score, there are lots of folk songs and Redford’s Garrison Keillor-like narration. Both touches are needless and a poor substitute for an exciting score. On the other hand, there’s no modern, auto-toned updates of “Razzle Dazzle Day” or “Candle on the Water,” which is a relief.
The message is also potent and well considered: children who become orphans due to family tragedies are not victims or doomed to walk the Earth alone. Everyone deserves to be part of a new family. In this case, both Pete and Elliot have only each other and are in need of someone to take care of them.
Dallas Howard can light up any scene and easily matches Reddy as a luminous screen presence. I’m not sure why Redford is in this and he appears to be wondering that himself but he acquits himself well in a character role. The other humans are a problem. Wes Bentley and Karl Urban (who’s even more broad here than he is playing “Bones” in the new Star Trek films) play ill-defined roles that mostly require them to stare slack-jawed at Elliot (call it The Jurassic Look). Isaiah Whitlock Jr., one of my favorite character actors, plays the town sheriff who doesn’t hesitate to send a squadron of cop cars when a dragon sighting is reported. It’s that kind of movie.
While this is officially a remake of the earlier Disney movie, it’s more of a re-telling of E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. There’s also bits of Harry and the Hendersons and Where the Wild Things Are, but mostly, this is another attempt by the Mouse House to recreate Steven Spielberg’s 1982 masterpiece, the best movie Walt Disney never made. The elements are all here, including a central character named Elliot. There’s also a climactic moment where our heroes are on the road, headed towards armed cops and a boy cries out, “Fly, Elliot!” No, bicycles don’t go flying across the moon, but you get the gist.
I wanted the humans to be at least half as interesting as Elliot and, on that count, the movie doesn’t deliver. But kids will likely love this, parents won’t kick themselves for attending and everyone will be awestruck every time Elliot appears.