The original Pete’s Dragon was a silly, delightful memory for me. So much so I even have an original cell of Elliot on my wall. The 1977 movie had music, adventure, comedy, and, of course, Shelly Winters and a host of other great actors (not to mention Helen Reddy).
Remaking it for present day was always going to be a challenge because sensibilities have changed. At a basic level, the choice to change the underlying focus of the story to being an ecological one was clever and topical. However the overall story itself of a lost child raised by creatures was somewhat aced by Jungle Book in plot and crushed by the same film in terms of effects.
Additionally, writer/director David Lowery’s (Aint Them Bodies Saints) story result is muddled, particularly at the beginning. While I appreciated the choices, it was far too scary an opening for young kids and far too simple for older kids and adults. It also just never fully gels, though it finds its head of steam about half way through the plot.
But even more frustrating is that only one actor comes across as genuine and real: Robert Redford (The Walk). The rest of the cast, including Keith Urban (Star Trek Beyond), Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World), and Wes Bentley (Welcome to Me), never felt true; they’re all play-acting a child’s story. That approach could have worked, but the sense of the tale, which is more naturalistic, didn’t support that approach either. There just isn’t enough adventure to make that choice feel fulfilling. I will give the two children some props however. Oakes Fegley (This is Where I Leave You) and Oona Laurence (Southpaw) work well together and found an approach that felt right for the audience and story: positive and possible but not necessarily without risk and cost.
The dragon himself, Elliot, is well done and not a bad interpolation of the original hand-drawn character. OK, yes, furry, but it works… mostly because he is clearly based on dog behavior (a wolf hound if I had to pick). But that had other knock-on issues. While the movement choices make him seem cuddly, it resonates oddly because he is so familiar that there is no sense of “otherness.” How to Train Your Dragon achieved that aspect by looking at more at feline behavior for its movement and attitude and it kept just enough of a sense of risk and miscommunication between the characters.
Children’s movies are never easy to do, admittedly. Finding the right tone to keep everyone’s attention is a huge challenge. This version of Pete’s rides a difficult line with very good intentions to deliver both a story and a message, not to mention a bit of magic, but doesn’t quite hold together, even if it manages to pay off at the end.