The team behind the reimagining of the 1977 Disney feature film “Pete’s Dragon” has eliminated everything that made the original film a mess.
Gone is the forced humor by Mickey Rooney, the clunky acting of Helen Reddy, the heavy-footed dance numbers and the awkward battle between good and stereotypical evil. All of those mistakes make that version of “Pete’s Dragon” one of the worst films in Disney history.
All of these adjustments have helped the new version. They just don’t help enough to counter the new errors. It’s a flawed second take on the story that has some warmth, but a choppy story and a complete miss in the visuals for the dragon trips up the new version.
About all that’s the same from the original movie is there’s a very young boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) and he spends a lot of time in the woods with a dragon known as Elliot (voiced by John Kassir). This odd symbiotic relationship seems to be working until Pete ends up too close to a construction crew and he’s spotted.
The boy’s existence is revealed to Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a local forest ranger who loves the woods as much as she does her own daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence). She loves the forest she protects but never saw a young boy or a large dragon.
Pete comes to live with Grace and Natalie but he misses his dragon. Of course, no one believes he has been living with a giant lizard for years until Elliot makes a surprise appearance. This is where the script becomes a rather standard story of one side wanting Elliot to live his life in peace in the woods and the other side that wants to treat him like a sideshow attraction.
Director/writer David Lowery manages to keep the movie a notch higher than a standard cable tearjerker especially banks on the solid performance by Howard. His problem is that the script becomes too simplistic in its moral discussions.
Just like the overplayed villains in the original movie, this film leaves no place for middle ground. Karl Urban’s role as the man who wants to make Elliot a carnival show is so melodramatic he only needed a long mustache to twirl.
Redford plays it straight
Lowery tries to smooth the rough edges with narration by Meacham (Robert Redford), a local who has spent his life defending claims that he once saw a dragon. Redford’s take on the role to play the character as being totally sane eliminates any tension that would come from others questioning his mental state.
The biggest blunder is the design of Elliott. The creature didn’t have to look like he had just left the set of “Game of Thrones” – but making the dragon look like a huge cat does little to sell this story. Instead of looking like a traditional dragon, this Elliot is more like the creature from “The Neverending Story.”
Lowery has a love of cats and that played into the design of Elliot. Thank goodness he wasn’t a fan of skunks or this movie would have been a real stinker.
Instead, the new “Pete’s Dragon” is left with a central character who looks more likely to cough up a furball than a ball of fire. It’s not a good look.
Despite that major graphic flaw, “Pete’s Dragon” is a better film than the original by light years. The fact the new film isn’t great shows the level of awfulness in the original. Maybe a third attempt will get it completely right.