Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon – Reinventing a “Classic”

Written by Matt Butler September 01, 2016

pete's dragon

I would never have seen the original if not for contrast. Now I never want to see it again.

Let’s begin this review of Pete’s Dragon (2016) with my honest thoughts on Pete’s Dragon (1977):

It’s terrible. Unwatchably terrible. Right down there with Inspector Gadget terrible. Maybe it still has an audience, but from how distanced this new iteration is to the original (the actors weren’t encouraged to watch it), it’s safe to say that both director David Lowery and Disney felt like being liberal with the liberties taken. It’d be easy to assume Disney is revamping their catalog on the basis of a prime demographic (that’s a big part of what made Jungle Book so successful), but having another giant like Jungle Book risks over-saturating the market (It’d be like Marvel releasing Civil War and Ragnarok in the same year). Jungle Book was Disney’s time to play it safe, and it paid off, but Pete’s Dragon was a chance to try something dangerous.

What do I mean by dangerous? Well, have a sample of the lyrics of the opening song from 1977’s Pete’s Dragon:

Gonna snag him, gag him, drag him through town

Put his head in the river, let the pup drown

Trap him, snap him, wrap him in a sack. Yeah!

Tie him screaming to a railroad track.

In this jolly opener, titled ‘The Happiest Home in These Hills’, Pete’s run away into the forest, which has his hillbilly guardians ‘worried’. The rest of the film holds close to this oddly casual fixation on abuse (you can tell who the villains are strictly by the vividity to which they describe intended violence). Not that I’m against violence, even in a children’s movie, but the movie isn’t even any fun about it. Much like its titular character, Pete’s Dragon (1977) is an awkward, bumbling mess (no offense to Elliot the dragon, that’s just his character).

Gonna paw him, claw him, saw him in half,

When he cries out for mercy we’ll just laugh,

Beat him, heat him, eat him for dessert. Yeah!

Roast him gently so the flames won’t hurt.

So yeah, not a fun flick. If you haven’t seen it already, don’t bother. If you saw it as a kid, give it a re-watch and tell me you don’t feel the slightest bit disturbed. 
Now, let’s talk about what I told you we’d talk about.

pete's dragon, 2016

I’m getting some strong NeverEnding Story vibes. I like it.

He says he wasn’t alone.

One of the biggest takeaways with Pete’s Dragon 2016 is that it’s almost nothing at all like Pete’s Dragon 1977. Sure, there’s a boy named Pete, and he has a dragon named Elliot who can turn invisible, but apart from that, apples and oranges. Thank God. You may notice similarities to other movies, though. As one creative commenter (whom I wish I could find) put it on the teaser trailer, Pete’s Dragon looks like Mowgli doing Tarzan things while learning How to Train his Dragon. After seeing the movie, I have to agree, with just a tiny edit: ‘…while learning How to Train his E.T. Dragon’. So Pete’s Dragon is nothing like a movie I hate, but it’s a lot like a bunch of movies I love. Too much alike? Maybe, but it’s still better than the alternative. I suppose the only big drawback is that it makes the whole affair fairly predictable.

pete's dragon, robert redford, oona lawrence, bryce dallas howard

Meacham (ROBERT REDFORD), Natalie (OONA LAWRENCE) and Grace (BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD) seem surprised. They must be reacting to what I just wrote. Or maybe seeing a dragon for the first time. Really though, they’re all fine in this movie.

It’s also a bit of a sleepy affair too. Sure, it’s about an orphan boy who lives in the woods with a dragon, but Pete’s Dragon isn’t about to sweep you off your feet with that, which to the film’s credit, sets it apart from its influences. It’s like they already know we know how fantastical this should feel, so the movie doesn’t feel the want or need to embellish its essential grandeur. You can even feel the sleepiness in the natural lighting. The story always seems to be taking place at either sunrise or sunset, keeping the story and the characters stuck in a limbo of waking up and powering down. This has an unfortunate cost on the actors, none of which stand out or bring any outstanding energy, save for Pete (Oakes Fegley) and Elliot (voiced by John Kassir).

pete's dragon, oakes fegley, 2016

OAKES FEGLEY’s performance is Pete-Perfect. No, I will not apologize for that. You try writing this crap.

He’s been out in the woods, doing things his own way. Sounds like a boy after your own heart.

Fitting with the tone, Fegley has all the quiet enthusiasm needed to liven up Pete (and none of the nosiness that made the original Pete such a nuisance). Even more fitting is a titular dragon who’s subtle emotivity carries the film. Elliot is a very nuanced creature, with just the right amounts of amiability, loyalty, silliness, and majesty to keep himself a compelling mystery. He’s also got a lovable design, which people, of course, wrote off upon first reveal because ‘dragons don’t have fur’ or something. But when you think of the role Elliot must fill (the surrogate parent/best friend for Elliot), a huggable, dog-like, Falkor-ish design isn’t a gamble (he even chases his tail).

pete's dragon, 2016

A boy and his dragon.

You’re very brave. Did you know that? You might be the bravest boy I’ve ever met.

It’d be easy to write off Pete’s Dragon as a failed attempt to recapture the lightning in a bottle that was Jungle Book, but that’d be wrong. Pete’s Dragon is a mature reinvention on an immature “classic” (classic, in this case, has nothing to do with quality, and everything to do with age). It has a distinctly indie feature feel that diverts from the entire Disney live-action catalog thus far. It drags at times, plenty of times actually, but it has far more to offer than its roots can (which really isn’t saying a whole lot now, is it?). It’s an endearing, albeit familiar, story that showcases the importance of family, something we all need to be reminded of from time to time.

My Rating: 6/10


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About Matt Butler

Matt Butler

Matt Butler is a strapping young English Major with a fiery passion for the art of cinematic storytelling. He likes long walks on the beach and knows the proper use of 'your' and 'you're'. (Example: I hope YOU'RE having a wonderful time browsing our site, and I hope you enjoy YOUR time reading my film reviews. I wrote them just for you.)

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