Tuesday, September 6, 2016

How To Make A Dragon Boring: Pete's Dragon

The Good: Decent effects, Acting is all right
The Bad: Pacing, Overbearing soundtrack, Thematically heavyhanded.
The Basics: The new rendition of Pete's Dragon is boring until it reaches a disappointing, obvious, ending.

When it comes to family films, I knew nothing about Pete's Dragon until I sat down to watch the new incarnation. As I understand it, the original version was a kitschy blend of live-action and animated elements. Disney has remade Pete's Dragon as live action film with a new CGI dragon, which made me (as someone with no affinity or reference to the original) wonder "have people been clamoring for a new, refined version of the classic kid's film?"

Having now watched Pete's Dragon, I'm not sure what the push was for the movie. This version of Pete's Dragon seems like a boring blend of Fern Gully: The Last Rainforest (reviewed here!) and Where The Wild Things Are (reviewed here!), both of which are superior films. At the moment the car crash occurred, my wife - who had seen the original film - warned me that Pete's Dragon had the potential to be very dark. The new incarnation of Pete's Dragon is not overly dark on the thematic front, though it is fairly dull and thematically heavyhanded. I'll take boring over child abuse in my entertainment any day, though.

Pete is reading Eliot Gets Lost in the back seat of his parent's car when a deer runs out in front of the car and in the resulting accident, his parents are killed. Pete crawls out of the wreckage and is menaced by a wolf . . . until a dragon appears out of nowhere to save him. Six years later, Pete is living in the wilderness near a logging site with his dragon companion. They seem to have gotten along quite well and while there are local legends about the dragon, no one (save Meacham and Pete) appear to have seen it. One day, while the forest ranger Grace is out patrolling, she comes close to Pete and Elliot, prompting the dragon to turn invisible. Grace leaves, but not until Pete has the chance to steal her pocketwatch, and Elliot returns.

As loggers encroach upon the forest where Pete and Elliot live, Grace, her fiance Jack, and Jack's daughter Natalie, discover Pete living in the woods. Taking Pete to the local hospital separates him from Elliot and all he knows. While Pete tries to escape Grace and the town, Gavin (Jack's lumberjack brother) goes hunting for the dragon. As Grace tries to take care of Pete, Gavin discovers that Elliot is real, but is discounted by his brother.

Pete's Dragon is obvious family fare and it is more boring and predictible than it is bad. As one might expect from a Disney film, Pete's Dragon promotes the archetype of a heteronormal family and takes that which is other and puts it into that vision of family. As a result, Pete - who is happy and surprisingly well-adjusted for a wilderness child - is dragged from all he knows, loves, and wants to be with and placed in a family with a father, mother, and sister and the audience is supposed to find it satisfying. Given how drawn out the beginning is, the time with Pete and Grace's family feels more forced than emotionally satisfying.

There is a real disconnect of reason in Pete's Dragon. How did Pete progress his language skills beyond that of his five year-old self when he only had one book to read? Why would Grace take a social services type stance in regard to Pete when all she truly seems to want to do is hang out in the woods and protect the trees? Why is Gavin's first instinct to hunt the dragon when the only logical explanation for Pete's survival in the woods was the aid of a benevolent creature, like Elliot? Pete's Dragon lacks any subtlety or sophistication, which makes it disappointing. Sure, it has a nice pro-environment message that is lacking in the public dialogue these days, but it is drowned out frequently by an intrusive soundtrack and long stretches where virtually nothing happens and people try to deny that the dragon actually exists.

The performances in Pete's Dragon are fine. Oakes Fegley is fine as Pete and his greatest acting moments come in his ability to flawlessly work with unreal objects - the CG dragon. Bryce Dallas Howard plays Grace, who is presented as the archetype of a caring woman, in a role that is forced and flat. Elliot, the computer-generated dragon, has more emotional range and expression to him than most of the adult performers emote in the film.

Ultimately, Pete's Dragon feels like a drawn-out, cinematic version of "Puff The Magic Dragon" but at least the song ends after five minutes. Pete's Dragon is longer and feels quite a bit longer than that.

For other movies currently in theaters, please check out my reviews of:
The Whole Truth
Suicide Squad
Star Trek Beyond


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2016 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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