Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Disney's Pete's Dragon Review by Jerry Skids

Jeff’s Dragon: a review of Pete’s Dragon (2016)
Written by Jerry Skids

Pic courtesy of Disney

          Some people say that you should never COMPARE a reboot to the original...but how can that be possible, when the studio went through the trouble of securing the rights to the original franchise just to use the characters, plot and yes TITLE of the original film.  They are physically asking you to compare it, whether you like it or not.    In Disney’s journey in rebooting a plethora of their original films into live action, the most recent film was the not-very-well-advertised-and- therefore-no-one-is-talking-about-it Pete’s Dragon.  The original 1977 film, Pete’s Dragon, was fun, silly, out of control, humorous, and had tons of great songs to sing along to.  

The reboot was none of the above.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I actually had a good time watching this film, but it is a far cry from anything the original intended to be.  The story is mostly subdued, introspective and dramatic, with any inklings of comedy being few and far between. And that’s great if I was looking for that sort of thing, but when you bill a film with the SAME NAME as the original, you’re expecting the same intentions.  And while the 1977 film was original and fun, the 2016 film was safe, standard and as generic as it can get.

Comparisons aside, the new Pete’s Dragon’s biggest problem was not knowing what it truly wanted to be.  For instance, it is set amongst a group of lumberjacks and the main character, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), is a park ranger who is in love with the forest and its wildlife, as well as her husband, Jack (Wes Bentley) who just happens to BE one of those lumberjacks...  And that’s it.  There is no conflict revolving around these circumstances, with the exception of ONE random running gag that I won’t spoil in this review.  How do you create a film involving these two very opposite things, yet NOT have it be part of the actual plot?!  

Speaking of plot….At the climax of the film, I found myself asking “Wait...we’re here already?!  How is that possible?”  The reason being, there really is no semblance of a plot anywhere to be found beyond the main tired story.  Not one character had any sort of arc..except for Pete and Elliot (and even theirs is arguable weak).  And that’s the biggest issue this film has...There is NO character development and very little backstory for any of the characters.  You spend the entirety of the hour and 45 minute run time without knowing why anybody actually does what they are doing.   It’s such a shame because there are some really potentially interesting characters.  

Besides Grace and Jack, we have Grace’s “kooky” father (Robert Redford), who has been claiming all his life that dragons exist ...don’t worry, you’ll only see this interesting character for about 15 minutes because any sort of story would be too much for this film.  We also have Jack’s daughter, Natalie, who really adds to the film with her warming and unrestrained personality...but of course, you don’t learn anything about her beyond the fact that she has a good relationship with her father.  And finally, Jack’s brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), the lumberjack/hunter, who steals the show as the “villain.”  If only he were given some sort of motive to work with, or even a hint of backstory.  But no..that’s not happening.  Not in this film.

The one thing I did LOVE about this film was the music.  The soundtrack was made up of melancholy folk songs to really smack you with a feeling of loneliness...and that’s what really worked here.  The mood, the feeling, the attitude.  In a small town where everyone knows each other, they all seem to be so disconnected to the outer world...and the vast forest and mountains that surround them makes it even tougher.  While they don’t go into this in the film via dialogue or action, it is told solely through music and mood.  As happy and quaint as everyone might be, there will always be this disconnect from society.

 The music also contributes to the timeless feel of the film.  No one has cell phones, they listen to music on vinyl, the score is made up of folk songs and instrumentals, which could be from any time, really… and that works in the film’s favor.  It will never feel dated.  We are in a small town, in some time period, with bland people who live normal lives.

The final thing I do have to go into is the fact that this is titled Pete’s Dragon.  Yes, there is a boy named Pete...and yes, he has a dragon.  But that is the ONLY similarity to the original, plotwise.  The story is different, the setting is different and the characters are different, so why even bother using the same name?  Doesn’t it make more sense to have this be a sequel?  In the 1977 film, (do you have to say “spoilers” for a near-40 year old film??) Elliot leaves Pete in the end to go find a new boy to save.  Why not have this main character be the new boy?  Name him….I dunno...Jeff or something.  He’s completely different from the original anyway.  The original Pete was an orphan living with abusive foster parents, who was looking to run away from his horrible life, which factors into the plot throughout the whole film.  In THIS film,, Pete’s folks die in a car crash and he escapes into the forest, where he is raised by his it’s basically… Tarzan...or Mowgli… This film could have easily just been the continuing adventures of Elliot.  All they needed to do was slap on a different title like “Jeff’s Dragon” and all would have been resurrected.  In fact, I honestly have no clue why they didn’t.  The movie wouldn’t have been perfect either way, but it would have still had its own identity, which is what this version is absolutely lacking.  Instead, it was piggybacked onto the original as a reboot, which dragged it down a few notches, when it could have stood on its own.

Was Pete’s Dragon (2016) awful?  No.  Was it great?  No.  It was fine.  The dragon looked amazing, the effects were flawless, the mood was great...but the one thing it lacked, were the two most important things: character and story.  While Pete and Elliot were given distinct personalities, they were the only ones who didn’t come off as ancillary.  The audience cannot build any sort of connection to the other main characters, because they come off as two dimensional (sometimes even one-dimensional).  It’s definitely worth seeing for the effects and the general feeling of the piece - it’s always great to see a level of art to a major studio film.  But don’t expect any sort of development, because it’s just not there.   C-

Written by Jerry Skids


  1. Thanks. Good review. And mirrors thoughts I had after Zootopia- pretty but why bother: it seems the makers have let tech trump story, whereas Walt (and his real students) would painfully cut even great scenes if they didn't directly feed the STORY. In one of the extras on Zoo~, the director (or producer?) even says, "forget about story and go for the imagery- we'll figure the story out later." So we are left with pretty empty images. Sad.

    1. Thank you. Good for them for leaving that incriminating statement into one of the extras...makes the director/producer look like one of those Hollywood sheep. We need more Brad Birds, Tarantinos, Kevin Smiths in the big chair right now...People not afraid to do something new. People who know how important story/character is to a film.



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