PETE’S DRAGON (8 out of 10) Directed by David Lowery; Written by David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks; Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr. Running time 102 minutes; Rated PG for action, peril and brief language; In wide release August 12, 2016.
The reimagining of the movie about a boy named Pete and his dragon Elliot hits theaters this week. Reaction to the trailer has been so divisive you’d think they flipped the genders of all the main characters, but the question remains: is it any good?
Given this film’s pedigree, we assembled two of our robots, both of whom love the original film, to see if this is a “Brazzle Dazzle” film or if it should just turn invisible.
Andy: Ok, first off. . . wait a second. I need a moment.
Andy: Shut up. No, I’m not crying. You’re crying.
Bryan: Of course I am.
Andy. (Ok. Ok. Wow. Composed. Acting like an adult. . . .) So, Bryan, how familiar are you with the 1977 animated/live-action mix film Pete’s Dragon?
Bryan: I’m pretty familiar with the 1977 classic. I loved it dearly and wore out the VHS recording my grandmother had made off of the Disney Channel. It began my obsession with traveling medicine shows and words like “Terminus.” Because of my love for the original, the trailers for this version made me skeptical, but I think that was foolish of me. And that’s the whole point of Robert Redford’s role in the film, to show the jaded adults how wonderful life as an adult with a sense of wonder can be.
Andy: I was also immediately skeptical, but that was shortsighted of me as well. Anyone who knows anything about the original film or has any love for it, put it away. Forget everything you know about it. This film has exactly three things in common with that on: they’re both called Pete’s Dragon, there’s a boy named Pete, and he has a dragon named Elliot. Everything else? Completely different. In fact, it’s not even worth talking about all of the ways it is different because it’s completely irrelevant. But what could be more simple and basic than just a boy and his dragon?
Bryan: At the heart of either version of Pete’s Dragon is a lost child with no one that loves them and a dragon that wants to protect them. In this version, we’re given a touching story set in the Pacific Northwest in some indistinct period of the ‘80s. I think it’s a smart move that they moved the time period, location, and tone of the film, but kept that beating heart, transplanting it into a Spielberg film. Visually, story-wise, and tone. It owes all of it to Spielberg.
Andy: I hope someone is writing checks to the Spielberg estate over so completely ape-ing his style (see also JJ Abrams, The Duffer Brothers). I think it just shows that the generation of filmmakers working today loved and learned from one of the masters of modern storytelling. Overall, that’s a good thing. I think they also owe a huge debt to John Lasseter and the folks at Pixar who have also pioneered balancing gorgeous digital animation with simple storytelling that tugs at the heartstrings.
To wit, Elliot’s character design is fantastic. While the 1970’s Elliot had the look of Disney animation of the era, this Elliot is a masterwork of digital effects. Speaking of a mashup of Spielberg and Lasseter, it’s like they took a four legged sauropod from Jurassic Park and mixed it with Sully from Monsters, Inc. and gave it the personality of a puppy. The way Elliot and Pete howl at the moon with each other is just heartbreaking and beautiful, reminiscent of a previous on-screen Elliot and his pal E.T.
Bryan: The film is simple, just like the old Disney cartoons of yore. The story is as simple as the trailers make it seem and there’s nothing wrong with that. By boiling the story down to its essence of character, we’re given a refreshing breath of fresh air in the movie theater. Can you imagine how good a superhero film might be if they were allowed to fall back on the simplicity of “Here’s a simple premise, how would the character react honestly…”? Pete is understandable, a barely verbal avatar for any age of child watching the film. Pete is, himself a dream, but somehow he’s real. Redford offers us the view of the non-jaded, completely uncynical adult, and the rest of the adults come around to his perspective.
There’s a wonder in this world and it’s magic and dragons and we yearn for it to be as real in ours.
Andy: I think another master stroke is the addition of Natalie, a young girl character. Because we have kids and adults of all ages and genders being depicted in this situation, everyone gets a “way in” to the story. You mentioned Redford earlier-- what a master stroke getting him in here!
Bryan: Another fascinating thing about this movie is that it gets along without a bad guy. Karl Urban plays the closest thing we get to it, but he’s not a bad guy, he’s merely doing the wrong things for completely understandable reasons. And he’s on the same team as the protagonists by the end of the film. It’s remarkable to make the situation the villain, rather than a guy twirling a mustache.
Andy: And while I miss Jim Dale’s literal mustache twirling from the original, making the situation the villain is so much more poignant, if only for the simple fact that it weaves an incredibly subtle message about how we relate to our natural environment. Hearkening back to the 80’s sets us this dynamic where you have Karl Urban’s character and his fellow loggers who want to exploit the natural environment, where the kids, the park ranger, and Robert Redford’s hippie ass want to leave it free. In interviews about the film, Redford talked about his love of Bambi as a child and how that made him a conservationist. No doubt he is hoping Pete’s Dragon does the same for this generation.
Bryan: Pete’s Dragon took me by surprise. Like the soft, vulnerable underbelly of a dragon, it revealed a chink in my armour. I cried through this film. It was a catharsis that hearkens back to a different era of making films. My complaint about the film is that there are times where it drags, but that pacing felt deliberate. It could have been sped up slightly. And the music was a bit… hamfisted, though totally appropriate. 8 out of 10.
Andy: There were moments that made me -- a jaded adult who wanted to hate this movie for paving over something I loved from my childhood -- cry. My 8 year old son literally cheered at a climactic moment where Elliot saves the day. My inner 8 year old did too. While this isn’t as perfect a film as some, there’s magic here. One final thing: don't bother with the 3D. The film's luscious dark greens and blues as they explore the beautiful forests with canopies so dense they block out the sun gets washed out by wearing those sunglasses in the theater. You'll want to see the subtleties of the lighting. 8 out of 10.