A tale of a boy and his adorable giant monster
Alright so this one is more of a quick review, if only because my Best Ten Films of 2016 is dropping on the anniversary of the founding of the After Lobby (January 19th, mark your calendars, act now, beat the rush) and I wanted to get out a review for all of my most enjoyed films to mark them for my super awesome list. With that said, I wanted to draw attention to a flick many people ignored (blame Disney for crap marketing) that tugged on the rotted cords that once served as my heartstrings…okay I’m not going to front that most movies don’t affect me, I just bragged about bawling like a baby over a knockoff Groot for God’s sake.
A remake of the 1977 classic Disney flick that mixed live action with hand drawn animation, this version radically changes the plot but keeps the central premise the same: a young orphan befriends a large green dragon that can fly and turn invisible. In this version, the film flashes forward from the moment the boy (Pete, played by Oakes Fegley) meeting the creature when his parents die in a car crash to the early 1980s when a chance encounter with a park ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) gets him separated from his dragon buddy. Pete’s tale of survival for six years confirms the tales from the ranger’s father (Robert Redford) of meeting a dragon that hid in the Pacific Northwest forests. Meanwhile the dragon, Elliot, is trying to get back to his human buddy by any means necessary, even if it means exposing himself (that’s what he said) to a lumberjack crew led by Karl Urban.
Now for a remake, radically altering the story for Pete’s Dragon is a gamble that pays off in spades for the production. I mean the original wasn’t exactly a classic like Mary Poppins or Bedknobs and Broomsticks, two of Disney’s more popular blends of live action and traditional 2D animations in 1960s and 1970s. In addition, the original story had a very…convoluted plot involving a snake oil salesman, a family hillbillies exploiting child labor, a missing person’s case, and massive amounts of property damage that likely gave Zack Snyder his very first boner and appetite for destruction. Basically what I’m trying to say is that a copy of the original scenes would not have only been stupid, but freaking impossible. Oh yes, and the 1977 version was a musical because Disney.
The 2016 remake has no song and dance numbers to speak of, and the 2D animated dragon has been replaced with a 3D concoction that wouldn’t look out of place in our modern Transformers, Pacific Rim, and Marvel era of filmmaking. However, the dragon was clinically designed to be the most adorable looking giant monster since The Last Guardian, and even acts like a giant puppy towards Pete. Rather than go for a smooth or scaly skin, this dragon has green fur and emotes with smiles when it’s happy and roars when it’s angry. Design-wise, it’s a pretty well made creature effect thanks to a Disney budget that thankfully doesn’t get overused or goes to waste thanks to a pretty solid cast.
Oakes Fegley plays Pete as a feral child quite well, having only learned basic English at the ripe young age of four and only a children’s book to entertain him during his six years with Elliot. After the tragedy of his parents demise, he’s portrayed as living off the forest lands like Tarzan (not the shitty one) with his dragon friend. Much like Mowgli in the updated Jungle Book remake, this boy was directed very well to act opposite an entity that was never there and he clearly shows a wonderful bond with this imaginary creature that rivals even the best a boy and his dog stories. Hell, even when he’s acting opposite of regular actors, Fegley is doing a better job than some people three times his age. Pete’s distrust of the adults in the movie is portrayed quite confidently as you see him loosen his guard when the Bryce Dallas Howard comes to comfort Pete and gain his trust.
Incidentally, this is the best production I’ve seen Howard do in years, considering that she’s fucked up spectacularly in Jurassic World, Lady in the Water, and Twilight. But she’s more suited to a supporting role rather than a lead, and it helps when she’s allowed to have a relationship with some character in the cast that isn’t a forced Hollywood romance. Her bond with Pete is obviously more maternal than romantic (we hope), so it allows Howard to break out of her comfort zone and flex her acting abilities for something more suited to her talents.
Karl Urban comes in as our de facto villain as the head of a logging company whose foresting efforts are being stalled by Elliot tearing shit up in the woods. An odd choice that I will criticize this movie for is that it initially appears to be making foresting as some evil that must be thwarted with an environmental message just waiting to be delivered at the end…that never comes. Yeah, Urban’s character doesn’t even change in regards to his chosen profession nor does he act like a comical asshole who just likes to tear down trees like a coked out Captain Planet villain. Really, his antagonism comes more from the fact he discovers Elliot and wants to capture the dragon to…actually it’s not 100% clear what he intends to with it. Hell, the movie straight up asks him this query and he responds with a shrug and a simple demand for “money.” How he gets the money was left up to his imagination, so the screenplay lets the man down somewhat; but Urban still delivers a decent performance for what otherwise would have been a pretty thankless role.
Oh yeah and Robert Redford is in here as well as a kindly old grandpa figure that helps the kids of this movie out and regales the children of the small town with his own encounter with Elliot years ago. I did find it amusing that only three years ago this man portrayed the head of a secret Nazi organization in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, so him being a jovial old man was a bit of lurch to accept at first.
What wasn’t so difficult to accept was the rest of the screenplay aside from the critiques above. The story is well placed with appropriate dips for character development and great chase scenes allowing creative special effects teams a chance to impress kids with some swashbuckling adventure. All of this goes to a highly enjoyable climax that both parents and kids will enjoy, as well as a touching final few minutes on the relationship between a boy and his pet.
Now why am I bringing all these details up? Stay tune to tomorrow, January 16, 2017 at 8am Eastern Standard Time for a review of a movie that spectacularly fucks up everything I just described and then some for an example of how easily these family movies can go terribly wrong.
While I leave you in suspense for what movie I could be talking about, my final thoughts on the new Pete’s Dragon are a hearty recommendation that will entertain you without kids and provide a fun time for your little ones. It’s on Blu-Ray and streaming services now, so it’s an easy RENTAL even though this deserves a solid…
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