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Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Directed by: David Lowery

Premise: A remake of the 1977 film. An orphaned boy (Oakes Fegley) is raised by a dragon in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. When he is discovered by a Forest Service worker (Bryce Dallas Howard) the boy and his dragon are threatened by loggers.

What Works: The 2016 version of Pete’s Dragon is an example of a justified remake. The film borrows the conceit of the 1977 film but then uses it to do something fresh and new. The picture is actually closer to this year’s live action version of The Jungle Book than it is to its 1977 predecessor, especially in the character of Pete, played by Oakes Fegley. The boy is orphaned in the forest and lives very much like Mowgli of The Jungle Book. Fegley is outstanding in this film. In many scenes he is the only human actor with a digitally rendered dragon and he completely sells the illusion. But just as importantly, Fegley conveys the love between Pete and his companion and the loneliness of an orphan. This new version of Pete’s Dragon is impressive in the way it deals with some difficult subjects. The boy’s parents are killed in a car accident staged during the pre-title sequence and the filmmakers present this just right for the family audience, capturing the tragedy of the event in a way that’s appropriate to the film. From there the movie is about Pete and his relationship; the boy is torn between his desire for a family and his allegiance to his fire-breathing friend. The character work here is more sophisticated than the average family movie and Pete’s Dragon is unique in the Hollywood marketplace. Although it was made with today’s special effects, the new version of Pete’s Dragon is in many ways a throwback to the family-friendly fantasy pictures of the 1980s; the story and the filmmaking style recall movies like Flight of the Navigator, *batteries not included, and Explorers. Some of those retro qualities are in the picture’s restraint. The action scenes of Pete’s Dragon are less furious and more elegant than a lot of today’s adventure movies. Pete’s Dragon also recalls 1980s fantasy films in its good heartedness. There is nothing cynical about this film nor does it delight in death and destruction. The filmmakers seem to care about these characters and the film demonstrates a Steven Spielberg-like sensibility for playing to the audience’s emotions. As a special effects picture, Pete’s Dragon is extremely well made. Dragons and other flying beasts have been seen before but this dragon is a wonderfully rendered digital creation with a tactile visual texture and a performance that is utterly convincing.

What Doesn’t: The overall plot of Pete’s Dragon isn’t especially innovative. The turns of the story are familiar from movies such as E.T. the Extra Terrestrial and Free Willy in which children care for a rare or magical being that is threatened by adults. Pete’s Dragon adheres to that formula and doesn’t deviate from it. The film executes its story very well but the adult audience will see exactly where this is going. Pete’s Dragon focuses on the relationship between its title characters to the detriment of the other conflicts and relationships of the story. The first half of Pete’s Dragon is a little slow. There’s lots of beautiful imagery of Pete and the dragon but very little of it actually advances the story. The primary conflict of Pete’s Dragon doesn’t occur until well into the second half of the film. The supporting characters aren’t so well characterized and opportunities are missed. Bryce Dallas Howard’s forest ranger is in a relationship with the chief logger played by Wes Bentley. There’s clearly a tension between them but it isn’t explored. The cast also includes Oona Laurence as the daughter of Bentley’s character and a friend of Pete and the movie under develops her character.

Bottom Line: Pete’s Dragon is exactly what a family adventure movie should be. This picture is extremely well made and a lot of fun but it also possesses a sweetness and a sense of wonder that too few of today’s Hollywood films ever achieve.

Episode: #610 (September 4, 2016)