In another of Hollywood’s drive to avoid producing anything amounting to an original idea, Disney has rebooted yet another children’s classic into a CGI spectacle. This time, they went for one of the more heartwarming combinations of cell animation and live action in their vault by updating Pete’s Dragon. The original 1977 film starred Helen Reddy (then a noteworthy songstress trying to break into film) along with Mickey Rooney and introducing Sean Marshal as Pete, the young orphan who is befriended by a loveable dragon he calls Elliot. The film was a kid’s movie, to be sure. Flat performances of two-dimensional characters and hokey scripting of an all-too-predictable plot assured this film wouldn’t appeal to a sophisticated audience, but then, the target audience was 10 years old, so it was good enough and had enough humor for mom and dad to watch along. Its humor and sunny disposition along with its soundtrack made the original Pete’s Dragon a heartwarming movie. It is one of my favorite films in the Disney Vault.
The remake is more sophisticated. It is also less heartwarming.
Bryce Dallas Howard (one of my favorite actresses) plays the female lead named Grace. I cannot say that she plays Helen Reddy’s character, because all of the characters are different except for Pete and Elliot. Grace is engaged to a logging foreman who’s brother, Gavin, is hell bent on chopping down as much forest as he can. In these woods lives young orphan Pete who is being taken care of by his friend Elliot, the dragon. The film goes down a dark path in telling poor Pete’s back story while communicating a message of the errors of deforestation and the loss of the magic of nature. While dark, it is not bleak, however, so don’t think it is a tear jerker, although my granddaughter did cry at one point. The actors’ performances were a highlight. Karl Urban gave a depth to Gavin’s antagonist character that made you feel sorry for him and Howard’s Grace was the performance that drove the story. Robert Redford plays her father, the only other person to have encountered a dragon before the events in the movie.
The story is more sophisticated, to be sure. Hollywood moved away from pure flights of fancy long ago in favor of gritty realism. Grace, a forest ranger, discovers Pete living on his own in the woods and brings him back to town. She is engaged to a single father with a daughter not too much older than Pete. Pete, initially distrustful of people and city life, yearns to return to Elliot and the forest. The dynamics of that family relationship are complex and compelling.
In keeping with the attempt at more realism, Elliot was updated too. The 1977 Elliot was hand drawn and goofy looking. Large, fat green body with impossibly small wings and purple hair made Elliot that much more appealing to kids. This computer generated Elliot is large, but more dog-like in shape and appearance with larger wings. Imagine Clifford the Big Red Dog turn green and sprouted wings. He is quite well rendered, each hair moves with realistic physics, but because of the realism, his dog-like face cannot express emotion as well and as such is not as loveable as was the hand-drawn dragon.
Over all, I enjoyed Pete’s Dragon. It tells a compelling tale and has a positive message for the audience. It is not as heartwarming as the original, but the performances are better and the characters have more depth. I would have preferred it if the story more mirrored the original, rather than delve into some of the plot points it took, but it is still worth watching.