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!

Stuff I Liked

The greatest achievement of director and co-writer David Lowery’s take on the Pete’s Dragon material is the grounded, reality-based story. The 1977 film was a fantasy in the purest sense, even though it was set in a seemingly “real” fishing town in Maine. There was always a sense of hyper-realism, like Mary Poppins. The grounded tone of the film was an interesting place to go, and helped the film thematically.

Petes Dragon 01

One could compare this film’s tone to that of the reality-based adventure/fantasy films of the 1980s like The Goonies. There are fantastical elements in them, and we as the audience can see ourselves witnessing these elements in the film because the world which they inhabit is just like our own. Pete’s Dragon taking place in the late 1970s / early 1980s adds to the allure of the film. There’s a subliminal connection, especially with someone of my age who grew up in the 1980s and whose imaginations were captured by these kinds of films.

This fun, believable tone leads to some truly awe-inspiring and touching moments in the film. My favorite was the scene where Pete introduces his new friends to Elliot. Just the way the scene was shot invokes a sense of wonder and majesty. Natalie reaches out to Elliot and pets him, releasing the tension of the scene and letting the wonder out (which makes the sequence that immediately follows this scene that much more jarring and sad – to great effect).

Unlike the 1977 film, this Pete’s Dragon features some very good performances, with subtlety and nuance being the key. The best of these performances actually came from little Oakes Fegley, who plays Pete. He’s a very charming young actor, conveying a lot of emotions in his face. He also doesn’t say very much, which is a credit to his acting ability. Many child actors nowadays rely on their lines to convey humor or emotion. I really hope this role leads to many more for Oakes.

This is the first time I had heard the music of Daniel Hart, who is apparently a frequent collaborator with director David Lowery. For the most part, the film’s score is outstanding. It has an earthy, folk influence, with a little western twang thrown in. It starts out in a small ensemble, and then easily melds into the typical symphonic sounds of a motion picture score.

PETE'S DRAGON

Visually, Pete’s Dragon is wonderful. The tree-filled vistas were shot so beautifully. I still can’t believe it was all shot in New Zealand! That country is so rich in diverse topography that it could play virtually anyplace on the planet (and has even substituted for places that are not on this planet like Middle-earth). The filmmakers took a lot of care to make this setting as American as it could be – and took special attention to keep with the time period of the story in terms of props, clothes and tech.

image_008fe539As the end credits rolled, my wife’s first impression was pretty profound. “That’s what The Good Dinosaur should have been,” she said. And she was right! In fact, the earthiness of the score reminded me of the soundtrack of that Pixar film, which is one of the only things I liked about that movie.

The Good Dinosaur had all the makings of a sincere buddy story, but it was bogged down with too much unnecessary baggage and mixed messages. In Pete’s Dragon, the roles of the dinosaur and the little boy are reversed in terms of intelligence, with the boy still finding a family at the end of the film. The dinosaur could have been a mystical creature from the perspective of this little boy, inspiring awe and wonder just like Elliot does.

Stuff I Didn’t Like

In spite of all there was to like about this movie (and there is a lot), my enjoyment of Pete’s Dragon was hampered by a few large problems. The first one being the design of the titular creature.

Petes Dragon 07

I couldn’t get past the look of Elliot. He never looked like a dragon to me. He looked like a big, green-furred, long-necked dog with wings – reminding me constantly of Falcor, the “good luck dragon” from The NeverEnding Story. It was ridiculous, and really took a toll on my emotional investment in the film. The personality was there, but the look was all wrong. I couldn’t take the creature seriously in a majority of his scenes. He seemed so out of place. He was a giant cartoon in a very real world.

In the 1977 film, Elliot was indeed a literal animated cartoon character. But it worked in that film because of its fantasy tone. Everything is exaggerated, even the human characters. One could even make a case that most of the human characters were living cartoon caricatures. Therefore, a cartoon dragon is acceptable.

DracoAs I stated before, this film’s tone is much more grounded and the cartoony design of Elliot is mismatched. Elliot should have looked more like a conventional dragon – scales, fierce-looking, like Draco from Dragonheart. However, he should not look as nasty and nefarious as Smaug from The Hobbit. I think it would have been more of a challenge to the designers to create a realistic dragon that could also be endearing.

If he looked more like a typical dragon, there would have been a new dimension added to Elliot being introduced. Let’s face it, he doesn’t look that scary. He’s very round and has big eyes, which are comforting and reassuring. And if someone were to actually see him, they wouldn’t really feel threatened, especially when he flashes that winning smile. Even when Gavin called Elliot a monster, I didn’t believe it. An intimidating, pointy, scaly dragon exterior would have been a challenge for most of the characters to look past. His personality and demeanor could be retained. In fact, it probably would have been really cute to see this big creature acting like a dog.

Elliot’s odd design was a sort of visual representation of the tonal problem with this new Pete’s Dragon. There were scene choices that felt forced and awkward, like someone was trying to make them work. This tonal confusion bled into the music as well. Not the score per se, but the choices of songs used and their placement in the story.

The song “Nobody Knows” by The Lumineers is a beautiful song, almost matching the instrumentation of the film score. However, it did not match in the context in which it was played – a harrowing chase over the roofs of cars and a bus that ended with the confused Pete whimpering for Elliot. It took all the excitement out of the scene. The song would have been absolutely perfect for the ending montage, both musically and lyrically – a sad-but-happy tune talking about how love is deep and even though it’s the end of the story, this is only the beginning.

There wasn’t enough time spent building characters and relationships. I personally would have like to have seen the beginning of Pete and Elliot’s relationship given more time on screen. There was more to be explained and explored. In fact, there should have been more scenes between Pete and Elliot, showing their life together and how they got along. There could have been a great set-up for Elliot’s use of fire by having him use it to light the campfire in their cave.

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Lastly, there was a lot of set-ups for character relationships with very little or no payoff. Jack (played by Wes Bentley) had such potential for a great character arc. Here was a man who was obviously the boss of the lumber mill, working with his brash bully of a brother, Gavin (Karl Urban).

Jack is meek, with Gavin bullying him into getting his way when it came to where to cut down trees, with no consequences, despite his fiancee Grace’s (Bryce Dallas Howard) objections. He could have stood up against his brother’s capturing of Elliot, and aided the protagonists in setting Elliot free. Then there could have been a scene at the end where Gavin, seeing the err of his ways, reconciles with Jack and starts taking orders.

Jack’s arc goes nowhere, and he spends most of the film confused and bewildered as to what is going on. In fact, Jack was completely unnecessary. Natalie could have been Grace’s daughter and the father killed in an accident that was Gavin’s fault, causing the rift between Grace and Gavin. The story would have been the same, perhaps stronger. That could have been an interesting and powerful forgiveness and reconciliation angle.

Stuff to Ponder

There were some interesting themes at play in Pete’s Dragon. The strongest of these threads was the idea of family. The film has a lot of interesting family dynamics that would have been worth exploring had there been some payoff. The relationship between Grace and her father is distant because of his penchant for storytelling and her reality-based mind. As mentioned before, Jack and Gavin’s relationship also had the potential to be something special.

Petes Dragon 03

The strongest familial thread was Pete and his changing perspective on family. Early on, Pete lost his family in a car accident and spent the rest of the film searching for one. He and Elliot formed their own family, and looked after each other. When he encountered Grace and her family, Pete eventually realized that he doesn’t belong out in the forest with Elliot. Sitting with his new family, there was something that was just “right” about it in Pete’s mind.

“‘I will be a Father to you, and you will be My sons and daughters,’ says the Lord Almighty.” 2 Corthinthians 6:18

We all desire, on some level, to feel like we belong, like we’re home. The truth is that we were all created with this desire within us, what C.S. Lewis called “the great longing.”The family was designed by God to be a microcosm of how He feels towards us. Families love each other, and make sacrifices for one another, build each other up, hold each other accountable.

At the end of the film, Pete was adopted into Grace’s family, where he found love, comfort and reassurance . It doesn’t matter what he was in the past. Pete was now part of a family – a place where he like he belonged.

“…God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are His sons, God sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are His child, God has made you also an heir.” Galatians 4:4-7

Our Father in heaven wants us all to be part of His family, despite our past transgressions. And through the sacrifice and atonement of His Son for our sins, we are all adopted into God’s family. Now there will always be a place where we can belong – a perfect family in eternity.

So What I’m Trying to Say is

This new Pete’s Dragon is a great movie with good performances, wonderful visuals and a compelling story. It is filled with moments of humor, heart and pure wonderment. However, the design of Elliot himself should have been given more thought, given the interesting, more realistic take on the source material.

Like Pete, we all desire someplace to belong – a family. Despite our mistakes and sins, our Creator loves us dearly and has adopted us into His family – a place where we have always truly belonged.

Originally posted on Reel World Theology.

Petes Dragon Score

Pete’s Dragon (2016)
Walt Disney Pictures
Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley,
Karl Urban, Oona Laurence and Robert Redford
Written by David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks
Based on the 1977 film written by Malcolm Marmorstein
(from a story by S.S. Field and Seton I. Miller)

Directed by David Lowery

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