‘Pete’s Dragon’ Falls Short of a Magical Flight of Fancy

Photo Credit: Walt Disney Pictures

Pete’s Dragon takes the idea of the 1970s film and remakes it for a new generation. Pete (Oakes Fegley) is left alone in a secluded forest after a tragedy and spends six years with only a single friend for company - a dragon. When he’s found six years later, there’s plenty of doubt as to whether his companion is real, or just a product of his lonely imagination. There’s at least one person in the small town who believes his story though as Meacham (Robert Redford) had his own encounter with a dragon decades earlier.

Today, the 70s version of Pete’s Dragon is a little cheesy. It combines the live action story of an abused boy with a Disney musical and an animated dragon. Something like that probably wouldn’t be successful in the modern theater, no matter how much nostalgia it would provide for adults. The younger generation, for the most part, hasn’t even heard of the original, and probably isn’t going to be aware that the movie is even a modern remake. That’s probably a good thing - special effects have progressed so far since the original movie was made that you can’t help but see them as two completely different animals.

And what effects there are. Elliot the dragon is like nothing you’ve ever seen before. Elliot isn’t the cartoony dragon of the original, but he’s also not the scaly monster of a fantasy movie or Game of Thrones. Instead, he’s like a giant flying dog, which works brilliantly. Despite the idea that dragons are fire breathing dangers in any other story, Elliot seems like the kind of mythical creature that could curl up on your front lawn. The effects team goes out of their way to make sure every piece of his fur (yes, fur) ripples in the breeze, that his wings buoy in the air current, and make sure that you genuinely believe Elliot could be hiding in the mountains somewhere. They did a thrilling job with him.

Also excellent in the film is Oakes Fegley. He’s got a relatively short resume befitting his youth, so I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect from him. He and newcomer Neel Sethi of Disney’s The Jungle Book were fantastic finds for the Mouse House. Both boys are able to bring the wide eyed naivete of little boys who have grown up without other human beings around them, but also a gravitas to their situation that a lot of young actors can’t grasp. Fegley is sure to have a hugely successful career ahead of him.

Walt Disney Pictures

But what’s sad is that the effects and the young actor were really the brightest spots in the movie for me. The film promises imagination and magic and is aimed at young kids, but in the screening I attended, it barely held their attention. For a 90 minute film about a boy and a dragon, it moved incredibly slowly. Kids were up and down out of their seats, talking amongst themselves, and playing on theater stairs - unless there was a dragon in flight or the car chase (yes, really) that lands at the climax of the film, for the most part, kids weren’t interested, which doesn’t bode well for the movie to sustain a box office draw like an animated feature. Kids would probably rather see Finding Dory if it’s still offered at your local theater.

The film is also set in the forest alongside a logging town. From what little story we get about the town itself, it appears that its economy is built on the logging industry. It looks like a subplot might have been cut here about environmental destruction since we get a few hints at unethical practices amongst the loggers. Forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) takes a moment to spray paint a “don’t cut” line on a tree originally scheduled to come down in order to save an owl’s home, and she also is set to argue with Gavin (Karl Urban) at one point about moving too far into the woods, but the discussion is quickly abandoned in favor of the discovery of Pete in the forest. Pete even terms the area where logging is happening as the part of the forest where “the trees ran away.” These three little things are the extent of it though, and it’s not enough that kids will understand that the loggers are engaging in unethical practices. It’s unusual for Disney since the company typically likes to import the message of conservation in movies that feature environmental storylines, so I expected a little more.

It’s disappointing to me that Pete’s Dragon didn’t have that Disney magic I was looking for, especially since, unlike much of the audience, I am a fan of remaking films when the technology exists to improve upon them. Pete’s Dragon was striving for the heights that Elliot can reach, but it just missed its mark.