Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Pete'sDragon2Distributor: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: David Lowery
Writers: David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks
Stars: Robert Redford, Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Karl Urban, Wes Bentley
Genre: Action/Adventure Fantasy
Rating: PG
Growing up, I loved the original Pete’s Dragon film from 1977. I used to sing all of the songs. We even used to call the covered cotton in the fields near my house that resembled captured Elliot ‘dragons.’ When I saw the trailer for this film to be made with even better acting and effects, I was beyond excited. I knew they were going with a different take on the film, and I was all open to that, because frankly the original had its flaws. Unfortunately, it seems that the director passed up on the true potential of this film.

Content Guide

Violence/Scary Images: The most violent part of the movie is at the beginning when Pete’s parents die in a car accident, but you don’t see any bodies or blood. A few lumberjacks shoot guns at Elliot and try to capture him with ropes and chains. Pete gets knocked out by accident, and Natalie skins her knee. But there isn’t any blood or even showing of any wounds to speak of.
Language/Crude Humor: No language that I can remember. There is a bit of crude humor such as when Elliot sneezes on some people and gets snot all over them. 
Spiritual Content:  Unless you call legends of dragons spiritual content, then no, not really.
Sexual Content: Pete runs around half naked throughout the first part of the movie, but that’s honestly it. 
Drug/Alcohol Reference: Lumberjacks tried to tranquilize Elliot, and there may have been a mention of drinking.
Other Negative Content: None of note. This movie is pretty clean.
Positive Content: The movie tried to push the very common theme of not everything that’s real you can see, but it felt very weak.

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Review

When Pete was a little boy, he lived happily with his parents. But while on an adventure in the northwestern wildness, Pete’s dad swerved to avoid hitting a deer and inadvertently rolled the car, killing both him and his wife. Pete survived the crash and wandered away to the happiness of a pack of wolves. Elliot drives away the wolves easily, saving Pete and then takes him under his wing. Seven years later, Pete is still living with this big green furry dragon blissfully in the woods far away from any civilization.
Meanwhile, lumberjacks are harvesting the forest and cutting into an area unauthorized by the park rangers. A particular park ranger named Grace is outraged by this and does what she can to stop them. Her father Mr. Meacham tells many stories to the local children about a dragon who lives in the woods, but his daughter nor anyone else believes him. Curious, Pete wanders too close to the lumberjacks and Grace. They discover him and take him back to the nearest town where Grace and the authorities try to figure out what to do with him. But Pete tries to escape back to the forest to return to Elliot.
The original Pete’s Dragon was set in the northeast near a fishing town, and Pete was a twelve-year-old runaway from the nasty family who adopted him only to use him as child labor, and one day he stumbled on Elliot who became his guardian dragon. From just that one sentence summary, you can tell both of these films are very different. The only resemblance are Pete and Elliot’s characters, and some sparse elements to the plot. Elliot’s design is also quite different than what he was originally. Instead of the overweight dragon with pink frills and tiny wings, this one is furry, bear-like, and more grand in nature. However, both versions retain the ability to turn invisible.
That being said, I was all for the new differences. I wanted to see what different take they were going do with this story. I was hoping like what happened with the Jungle Book (Read the review!) and the Legend of Tarzan (Read the review!) that they would add an extra layer of depth to the story and enhance some of the character development. But I can’t help feeling the director didn’t know what he wanted to do exactly with this film. Did he want to keep the lighter tone of the original? Or take a more serious tone with this remake? The film seemed to go back and forth with serious elements such as a violent car crash and then Elliot sneezing on the villain or Elliot retaliating with blowing fire and the villain almost being comical. The plot seemed to wander as Pete seemed to lose his motivation later into the film, and the villain really didn’t seem to know what he wanted. There were moments of depth in character development and plot, but they were whisked away quickly like they didn’t matter.
The characters in the original were all pretty corny with good singing voices. In this one, I’d hoped for better characters. I feel like we had that with Pete. Oakes Fegley’s portrayal of a little boy raised in the wildness was excellent. He was innocent with fear of normal day objects. He took on some animal qualities like excellent climbing and a love for howling. He even had some social anxiety and claustrophobia. I loved that depth with him. But everyone else … was mediocre.
Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) had a very shallow character arc by becoming someone who’s skeptical of the unseen to a believer. This may seem spoilery, but you guessed this would happen from the moment this concept was introduced. Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) was a decent old believer character. Natalie (Oona Chaplin) and Jack (Wes Bentley) were fine, but nothing to write home about. They served their purpose and that was it.
Karl Urban as the antagonist Gavin was not a good portrayal though. Don’t get me wrong he is an excellent actor. He did an absolutely fantastic job as McCoy in the new Star Trek movies and Eomer in the Lord of the Rings. Heck, I even met the guy, so I’m a bit biased, but he just was not comfortable in this role–and it showed. He tried to be a villain with depth, but it almost felt like the director wouldn’t let him, and instead tried to turn him into a slapstick goofy villain, which Karl Urban is not. He’s a very serious guy, even in person. That’s just his personality. He just was not cut out for this kind of role. I almost felt embarrassed for him.
Lastly, the score was just sad. I love film scores. Three quarters of the music in my iTunes is film scores, so I very much pay attention to the music in films. The score in Pete’s Dragon had its good moments, but most of it seemed canned and even out of sync with the mood. Contemporary pieces were also used that just did not fit the tone of the scenes. I felt like this greatly interrupted the emotion of the film.
I wanted to love Pete’s Dragon, I really did. But I can’t as a writer and a critic give this film a glowing review. It had so much potential, but the director did not grab it by the horns and use it like it he should have. I wanted a scarier villain, a bit more grit, a deeper bond between Pete and Elliot, better character arcs, and a beautiful score. I just didn’t get that, and I’m disappointed.

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Positives

+ Oakes Fegley's acting was commendable + Elliot's CGI was very well done + The wildness scenes were beautiful + The opening scene was tremendously powerful

Negatives

- Karl Urban was clearly uncomfortable with his role - The director wasn't sure if he wanted the movie to be serious or silly - The score was generic and out of sync at times - The movie didn't go into as much depth as it could with its theme - The plot seemed to drag - The villain wasn't very motivated

The Bottom Line

Pete's Dragon had all of the potential to be a great film, but Karl Urban's miscasting, the shaky score, and the finicky tone really hurt this film. I wanted to like it, but I can't say this was a great movie.

 

6.3

Victoria Grace Howell

Victoria Grace Howell is an artist and aspiring speculative fiction writer. She received Teen Writer of the Year in 2014 at the Florida Christian Writers Conference , a conference she attended since 2010, and the Believers Trust Award in 2015. When she's not writing her books or articles, she enjoys drawing her characters, playing the piano and practicing Kung Fu.

1 Comment

  1. John Canary on September 1, 2016 at 4:35 pm

    I have vague memories of the original. In particular, a rather absurd song about making money. I must have watched it a grand total of once. MAYBE twice, but probably not.

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