There’s going to come a point when we won’t know which version of a Disney classic one is referring to by title alone. With the Mouse House intent on bringing just about every animated property to life, Pete’s Dragon actually stands out a little against the crowd. After The Jungle Book, Cinderella, Maleficent, and two Alice features, it’s surprising they’ve moved onto their live action features. However, anyone who may have a soft spot for the 1977 original probably hasn’t watched it recently. The weekend before seeing it, my wife and I tried to revisit it, and could barely make it through the first hour. Barely holding up, I have no issue with Disney giving this one a redux. Filled with far more likeable characters and no obnoxious musical numbers, director/co-writer David Lowery throws Pete and Elliot back into action. Even if there’s not as much of it as the trailers make it seem.
In this updated story, young Pete (Levi Alexander) is traveling with his parents when his dad swerves to miss a deer and they wind up in a car wreck. Poor Pete’s parents are both killed and after being chased by wolves, is saved by his new dragon friend Elliot. Cutting to six years later, forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is butting heads with her lumberjack fiancé Jack’s (Wes Bentley) brother Gavin (Karl Urban). Stumbling across the orphaned Pete, she eventually brings him back to town where he quickly makes friends with Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) who believes his story about a dragon living in the nearby woods. The only other person who believes Pete is Grace’s father Meacham (Robert Redford) who likes to scare the local children with tall tales of his own encounter with Elliot. Now, they all set out into the woods to discover the truth behind the stories.
A colleague who had seen the film on the press junket said the only thing this movie has in common with the original is that there’s a boy named Pete and a dragon named Elliot. And while he couldn’t be more right, it’s a very good thing. Considering how many people balk when remakes tread too close to the original, it’s refreshing to get one that veers so drastically from the source. The best part is not having to sit through any of the now-dated musical numbers. And, we get characters we like way more than the overacting of the original. Not to slight Helen Reddy or Mickey Rooney, but it’s nice to see this Pete’s Dragon far more grounded — even if it’s still about a boy and his dragon. Howard is warmer here than she was in last summer’s Jurassic World, but at least you never see her running through the woods in high heels. And it is odd to see Urban playing the pseudo-villain of a movie.
As good as the last half hour of the film gets, it’s too bad there isn’t something more fun or interesting during the first hour. It’s very disheartening when the film cuts from Pete meeting Elliot to six years later. That timespan would have been way more entertaining than what we get. Misadventures should have been the name of the game here, but all we get is a fish out of water story. Had Lowery focused more of his attention on the “Misadventures of Pete & Elliot” it could have been a total blast. I can’t help but think that Lowery, and co-writer Toby Halbrooks, were hindered with a smaller budget than expected and had to make due. With the first order of business being chop out a giant effects-filled good time. It may be a shame, but at least there is still some fun to be had. You just get stuck waiting around for it. The good news is that at least the youngins won’t mind. The two I brought with me loved every minute of it, and if that’s not a ringing endorsement, I don’t know what is.