Disney reinvents a so-so ‘70s film with a compelling modern update
I only remember snippets of the original 1977 Pete’s Dragon. Like The Apple Dumpling Gang or Herbie Rides Again, they were films that played in the background of my youth but never rose to the forefront of my memory. I can quote most of Ghostbusters and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles but all I seem to remember from Pete’s Dragon are scenes of broken fences, vague impressions of a lighthouse, and the animated green dragon with purple hair.
2016’s Pete’s Dragon is a reboot in every sense of the word. There is no connection between the two films—the plots are vastly different, the role of Elliott is dramatically changed, and there are no musical numbers in sight. With a sweeping film score that highlights certain tones from the original, Pete’s Dragon is its own film, telling its own tall tale that is timeless and captivating, especially for its core audience of younger viewers.
It’s the first family film made in quite a while that seems to be entirely family centered. There are no off-color jokes that fly over the heads of children to wink at adult audience members. There are no forced pop culture references to appeal to parents forced into a theater by colorful cartoons voiced by overpaid A-list actors. Instead, there is a story about loss, about hope, and the magic that can connect the two.
The tale begins with a tragedy that might have overpowered the entire film. Pete loses his parents in a car accident, somewhere on an empty road in a vast and dense forest. He is chased into the woods by wolves, clutching his tiny red backpack and a book he loved to read with his mother. Just as the animals close in, a larger force scares them away.
The film wastes no time introducing Elliott, the eponymous dragon that soon belongs to Pete. Elliott is both intimidating and charming, sharing many of his mannerisms and personality features with dogs. Pete and Elliott adopt each other and begin sharing adventures in the forest together.
Six years later, Pete has grown into a semi-feral child without fear, a Mowgli or Tarzan of the great American wilderness, staring down bears and leaping from cliffs with his dragon one step behind. These scenes are thrilling and happy, and though we’ve seen many a relationship like the one between Pete and Elliott, we still feel that the characters are fresh and original. But, of course, well-meaning humans interfere when a logging company intrudes on the forest, forcing Pete into the arms of a forest ranger and a young girl Pete’s age.
The scenes with Pete in the town after being discovered living alone in the wilderness for six years are reminiscent of last year’s film Room. Pete doesn’t know how to interact with humans and has seemingly no knowledge of their world.
At first, his description of Elliott is dismissed as imaginary. Elliott, of course, goes looking for Pete and allows himself to be seen leading to boilerplate consequences that have been rehashed and reused in film after film. And yet, for some reason, they work fine in the film.
Much of this has to do with the earnestness in which the story is presented. Pete’s Dragon is old fashioned storytelling and old fashioned storytelling can be endearing and comforting. These are characters with which the audience can identify and root for, characters without major flaws or obnoxious qualities. The film does an excellent job developing the wonder and awe of the dragon’s discovery, framing the magic of the world through the eyes of Pete.
Pete’s Dragon lets us know that there is hope for the world when we can believe in dragons. It’s a tall tale that soars and inspires, one that is needed at a time when the news is dominated by heartbreaking stories. It’s a beautiful distraction with a far better story that the 1977 original.
Family films are too often advertisements for toys filled with poor role models for children. Many times, the characters speak in ways we’d never want our children to emulate. Pete’s Dragon is a novelty in this regard. I’d be more than happy to have my child pretend to be Pete. Bravery is a great quality to have.