*Spoiler Warning For This Review*
Pete’s Dragon (2016) is a remake of a 1977 film of the same name. The film updates the story, having it take place in the Pacific Northwest instead of in New England like the original, while also moving the date from the turn of the 20th century to 1977. For full disclosure, I’ve never seen the original so I can’t comment on the differences between the two films. Pete (Oakes Fegley), the titular boy, survives a car crash deep in the forest and lives with a dragon for six years before he’s discovered by Park Ranger Grace Meachum (Bryce Dallas Howard). Pete’s Dragon is a safe, rather uninteresting movie about a lost boy and the dragon who finds and befriends him as well as the people who try, and ultimately succeed, in separating them.
Pete’s Dragon is a film that contains a small cast of characters, so the opportunity was there to give them nuance and depth. Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. The film’s characters are mostly one dimensional, but they are portrayed well by the actors. Surprisingly, the child actors, Oakes Fegley (Pete) and Oona Laurence (those are their real names), who portrays Grace’s stepdaughter, are naturals. They don’t have any awful, cringe-inducing moments and handle the material they’re given quite well. Pete himself just wants to get back to Elliot the dragon, and vice versa, but because he’s a kid, he’s at the mercy of the adults around him, and has almost no agency until the ending. Even in the film’s climax, the duo need an adult for their ‘master plan’ to succeed. Contrast this with films like The Sandlot, The Peanuts Movie, Stand By Me, or either of the It films, where adults are present, but the children retain their agency and their actions and decisions drive, and are crucial, to the plot. Bryce Dallas Howard is perfectly serviceable as Grace, but she’s an utterly boring cardboard cutout, while the film’s antagonist, her future brother-in-law, Gavin (portrayed cartoonishly by the wonderful Karl Urban), is an idiotic lumberjack.
“This is the story of a puppy, his name is Elliot, and he is going on an adventure.” The film’s opening lines refer to a book about an actual dog named Elliot, but set the stage for a grand adventure that the film never lives up too. In spite of that, Elliot, Pete’s dragon, is probably the best part of the film and he’s essentially a giant lovable, CGI dog...that can also fly, turn invisible, and breathe fire. The CGI effects of Elliot are really good. Elliot acts, plays, sniffs, sleeps, howls, chases his tail, and has all the mannerisms of a lovable and friendly puppy. He’s curious and playful, interacting with unfamiliar objects like sprinklers and tractors to humorous effect. Elliot even has a face that’s more ‘dog-like’ and less typically like that of a dragon and doesn’t have scales, but soft fur. Elliot along with Pete, live deep in the forest and they just play, have fun, and seem to have a great, loving relationship with each other. Elliot, like Pete, is also lost, but no effort is put into finding his family. However, by the end of the film, he just does...somehow.
Other than Elliot the dragon, Robert Redford’s Mr. Meachum is the best part of this movie. He understands and successfully gives weight to the magical, fantastic element of Elliot that the film casually undermines. You see, before Pete was discovered by Grace, Mr. Meachum was the only person who had ever seen the ‘Millhaven Dragon’. He alone is responsible for the mythology of the dragon, and despite constant doubters, including his own daughter, he has continued recounting that fateful meeting to the children of the town for decades. Gavin even says at one point, “remember those stories that Meachum used to scare us with as kids?”
I also love that Meachum roasts several of the film’s characters and the writers indirectly. After his daughter Grace says that she, “knows the forest like the back of [her] hand, how could [she] have missed a dragon,” and Redford, with a shit-eating-grin on his face, responds, “You missed Pete.” Boom. Game Over. (Later in the film she also claims never to have seen an area of the forest before, conveniently the area in which Pete and Elliot have been living, despite claiming to know the forest like the back of her hand.) Meachum further roasts Gavin, the film’s antagonist, asking him what his plans are after he has captured Elliot, and a befuddled Gavin admits that he has no idea what he’s going to do, but “it’s gonna put him on the map.” What? When your antagonist has no plans, and no real goal in mind, the dramatic tension is lost. Redford just shakes his head and laughs at him.
The opening scenes of Pete’s Dragon make you think the movie is going to be a ‘Green Aseop’ story. A film about saving the beautiful forest from greedy, encroaching, capitalistic mill workers. Turns out, I was giving the film way more credit than it deserved. Despite setting up several of these scenes in the beginning, with Gavin and his mill workers cutting deep into the forest where they shouldn’t be logging, and being scolded for it, as well as Grace Meachum literally saving a tree and saying, “no one's gonna cut you down,” the film just forgets about this subplot. At the film's conclusion, the mill workers of Millhaven, including Gavin, the primary antagonist, are still there, cutting down the forest. The only thing that’s accomplished by the movie’s end is that Pete is separated from his only friend of six years and returned to a human society he knows little about and has little has any connection to, while Elliot, his dragon, flys away and somehow finds his family (or, like, a similar flock of dragons) immediately. This ending devalues the relationship of Pete with his dragon, as well as the magical uniqueness of Elliot.
Pete’s Dragon is just a boilerplate film. It’s well made Disney brand entertainment, and will certainly delight children, but that’s about all it will do. The adventure isn’t very exciting or interesting, and large sections of the film are a boring slog for adults. There never seems to be much tension in the film and the antagonist readily admits that he has no plan. The best scenes in the film are that of Pete and Elliot just hanging out doing stuff together, or Elliot being a playful and ‘curious dog’ type dragon. There are actually a lot fewer scenes like this than you would think in a movie entitled Pete’s Dragon. Pete’s Dragon manages to take the wonderful and magical uniqueness of having a pet dragon and make it thoroughly dull. That takes talent. As of January 1, 2018, the film is on Netflix Streaming.
TLDR: Pete’s Dragon is a boring fantasy film about a boy, his dragon, and the people who try to separate them 2/5 Stars.
-Edited By Austin Toner