Pete’s Dragon a great fantasy for children and adults

Photos courtesy Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures.

Steven James

This decade, Mickey Mouse has taken some of his most beloved properties, starting with 2010’s Alice in Wonderland, and forced them onto the streets so he can get his money. The Mouse has done this with both original characters and ones he borrowed from previous source material. Including Pete’s Dragon, five of the seven Disney films released this year are either sequels or remakes, with The BFG the only one of those not originally owned by Disney. Say what you will about the quality of these movies, characters from The Jungle Book, Alice Through the Looking Glass and Finding Dory had to go stand at shady street corners throughout 2016 in the aftermath of the Mouse taking an evil turn.

Despite the wave of unnecessary remakes and sequels, Pete’s Dragon is a movie that refuses to talk down to children and presents them with complex situations and enough entertainment that most will love the movie. Adults too can watch Pete’s Dragon and also enjoy the story and the performances, as well as the difficult situations, whether or not they are fans of the original.

5-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegley, Levi Alexander in his scenes as a toddler) is riding in the car with his parents while reading his favorite book, Elliott Gets Lost, a tie-in book by writer/director David Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks, about a dog that gets lost in the woods and meets several woodland creatures during his adventure. His father swerves to miss a deer that jumps in front of them, and both of Pete’s parents die in the crash. Pete survives and is chased by a pack of wolves, which runs away after seeing a giant green dragon. Pete names the dragon Elliott after the dog in the book. Six years later, lumberjacks are working on a milling project near the cave where Pete and Elliott live. The two avoid discovery because of Pete’s agility and Elliott’s camouflage, but eventually Pete is seen by Natalie (Oona Laurence), daughter of mill owner Jack (Wes Bentley). She chases after Pete, and the lumberjacks soon follow, concerned about her safety. Gavin (Karl Urban), one of the lumberjacks and Jack’s brother, accidentally injures Pete, who is then confined to the local hospital. Jack decides to investigate the strange recent occurrences in the forest. He and his wife, forest ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), take care of Pete. Scared, Elliott looks for his missing friend.

Grace’s father, who we just know as Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford), tells the local children stories at his shop about a dragon he once saw in the forest. In one scene, he tells Grace seeing the dragon was like magic, but he might as well have described what watching this movie was like. Pete’s Dragon is a very sweet movie, and is a great piece of fantasy that people of all ages can enjoy.

Lowery and team took the concept of Elliott acting like a cute puppy literally, and made him a living, breathing character. If you love fantasy, you will probably fall in love with Elliott and want to take him home with you. With his snout, eyes, eyebrows, ears and paws, he even looks more like a dog than he does a traditional dragon.

Children need movies that actually respect them, not just pieces of filth their parents and guardians throw in front of them so they will be entertained. In the movie, Pete has to choose between living with the humans he just met and staying with Elliott. Elliott gets captured in an especially tense scene. The theme of family is often discussed, as well as the duty one must have to his or her family. Not that most kids movies are terrible or treat kids like they’re dumb, but enough of those exist that filmmakers still need to be vigilant about making movies for today’s youth to help their mental and emotional growth. Pete’s Dragon superbly does this.

Many remakes in general, especially if they do not improve upon the originals, are ways for filmmakers to get easy paychecks. The 2016 Pete’s Dragon is much better than the 1977 original. In that movie, Elliott acts like a cute dog — as intended — but is crudely drawn and not nice to look at. Also, the performances in the original are kind of meh, and the foster child running away from home story is presented blandly. The songs are OK, but nowhere near as well-written as songs from much later Disney Renaissance movies like The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Mulan. The 2016 version — not a musical — moves at a much better pace. The performances in the 2016 movie are superior, especially from Howard, Redford, Fegley and Laurence, the last two being children. Four child actors have to read dialogue, and they all deliver their lines very well. The friendship between Pete and Natalie is believable. When the actors have to pretend to look at a dragon, they all actually convince you they are looking at a dragon.

The typical problems in Disney movies of the adults being a little too dumb and some actors having to overact are present. In Pete’s Dragon, most of the actors who portray the lumberjacks and the police officers act too cartoonish, but these are minor problems compared to the rest of the movie.

The CGI in this movie isn’t terrible, but it is obvious. The effects are limited and have great detail, but they still look like they were made by computers. Elliott, the best character in the movie, looks great. You can see every detail of his physique, especially his fur and his wings. When he moves, you can also see the changes in the shadows and the details of his body. 

This movie has a $65 million budget, and looks better than other movies I have seen this year that cost more than twice that much. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice cost $250 million, not including marketing, and Elliott looks much better than Batman’s Dark Knight Returns armor. The effects of Elliott changing his appearance are much better than the effects of Magneto controlling metal in X-Men: Apocalypse, a $178 million movie. Amazing what happens when you shoot most or all of your movie on location. When a movie takes place in a forest or a small town, you should actually put the actors into a forest or a small town. As nervous as I am about Disney overtaking the entertainment industry, rival companies need to take note with how to use money and how to make movies.

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