BEN-HUR (2016) – Freedom in Forgiveness

Ben-Hur PosterMore often than not, remaking a movie is an odd proposition. No matter what one does, there will always be the inevitable comparison to the original film – good or bad. It’s even more daunting when the remake is of an established classic and considered one of the greatest movies of all time. So it is true with the new remake of Ben-Hur. The shadow of the 1959 film, which starred the legendary Charlton Heston, is all over this new take before one frame of film is shot.

From the moment I heard about this remake, I thought it was an odd idea. Ben-Hur is not just any film. While it does have its flaws, it is a monstrous epic filled with iconic images and profound ideas. Then I heard about the people involved, specifically executive producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey – the husband/wife team that brought The Bible and A.D. miniseries to TV and Son of God to the big screen. Not exactly comparable experience to take on William Wyler’s epic. That and the man picked to helm the project, Timur Bekmambetov, didn’t exactly thrill me, given that his body of mainstream work has never really sparked any interest at all in me (Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Wanted).

However, much to my surprise, I enjoyed this take on Ben-Hur. This is a completely different take on the material stylistically, and that’s okay. It’s a 21st century version of the story – more gritty and realistic that previous incarnations, and visually appealing to today’s mainstream audiences. There is very little of the schmaltz and unprofessionalism found in the other “Christian” cinema to which the filmmakers are attached, following in the same vein as last year’s Captive and this year’s Risen.

It’s not entirely fair to compare the 2016 and 1959 versions of Ben-Hur. They are different films made for different eras. Still, this film does fill in some of the holes that have always bothered me about the 1959 film (I’ll wait a moment for everyone to fall out of their seat in shock). I both like and dislike the two films for very different reasons.

The story of Ben-Hur is one of the most famous pieces of Biblical fiction. Jesus is not the main character, but His words and philosophy form the backbone of the narrative, providing a wonderful parallel parable for His teachings. It reflects Jesus’ most basic command – to love one another and forgive those who have wronged us.

SPOILIERS AHEAD!

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PETE’S DRAGON (2016) – Finding Family

Petes Dragon PosterPete’s Dragon continues Disney’s current trend of remaking their beloved classics for a new generation. Some have been hits, taking the core of the story and putting a new spin on it (Cinderella). Others have been misfires that have unnecessarily added questionable dimensions to characters (Maleficent). And still others are somewhere in between (The Jungle Book).

If there was ever a Disney film that was ripe for a remake, Pete’s Dragon would be it.

The original Pete’s Dragon, which was released in 1977, is a fondly-remembered film. It has its moments of charm, along with some great performances by Mickey Rooney and Pete himself, Sean Marshall. The techniques used to bring Elliot the dragon to life are stunning when they work, and the animation of the dragon himself is outstanding (directed by animation legend Don Bluth before he left Disney, and animated by some of Disney’s then up-and-coming artists like Glen Keane).

However, looking at the original (for the first time in almost two decades) three days before I saw this new version, I can say that the original had a lot of problems – mostly due to the time period in which it was made. The film, like Disney as a whole at the time, was trying too hard to replicate the successes when Walt Disney was alive. Walt had been dead 11 years when Pete’s Dragon was released, and the shadow of Mary Poppins looms all over it.

Petes Dragon Original

Unlike Poppins, few of the songs are memorable, most of the performances are hyperbolic to the point of annoyance (Jim Dale, Red Buttons and Shelley Winters instantly come to mind, among others), there isn’t enough of the delightful Elliot onscreen, and the film falls apart in the third act. I actually gave the 1977 Pete’s Dragon a 2.5/5 on Letterboxd. I think most people remember the idea of Pete’s Dragon rather than the actual film. Things like having Pete and Elliot in such classic Disney spectaculars at The Main Street Electrical Parade at Disneyland solidified their iconic status, even if the source film isn’t that great.

When a remake of Pete’s Dragon was announced, I was very enthusiastic – despite my overall opinion about Disney remaking its library of classics (why?). Someone was going to take the idea of a boy and his dragon to another place that was hopefully going to be better and more interesting.

So is this new Pete’s Dragon worth seeing? Yes!

It’s definitely better than the original film in terms of drama, pathos and story structure. As expected, the film is a completely different take on the concept, more grounded in reality. However, there were several glaring problems with the film that really prevented me from getting into it – one in particular being a literal large part of the film.

Thematically, the film has many ideas floating around, and none of them really land all that well. However, what the film does touch on most is the concept of family, and our need as human beings to feel like we belong. We were built to be a part of something loving and beautiful.

I thought I saw a dragon! SPOILERS AHEAD!

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