2 out of 5 stars
Rated PG. Directed by David Lowery.
Starring (voices) Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban,
Oona Laurence, Isiah Whitlock, Jr. and Robert Redford.
Opens Aug. 12.
Pete's Dragon is a story about a boy and his dog. In this case, the boy is a feral orphan living in the woods of the Pacific Northwest and the dog is his oversized furry green dragon.
Right off the bat, you might be asking yourself, "Furry? Aren't dragons usually scaly?" And the answer is yes — yes, they are. But furry creatures are so much more easily adapted as plush toys than scaly ones. And there's your first sign of the kinds of deeply cynical studio calculations that go into greenlighting a rehash of one of Disney's more obscure pieces of intellectual property.
Of course, ever since Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland made a gazillion dollars in 2010, the Mouse House has been full speed ahead on live-action (but heavily CGI) remakes of its animated properties. Last year saw a new Cinderella; this year already brought us an updated The Jungle Book; and next year promises Beauty and the Beast.
Nonetheless, Pete's Dragon strikes one as an odd choice for remake. The 1977 original was a Mary Poppins-style live action/animation hybrid, released at basically the nadir of Disney's long fallow period of flops and misfires between 1967's The Jungle Book and 1989's The Little Mermaid. But those Gen X kids who do remember the original fondly are now parents who can be counted on to drag their brood out to see the new version. Director David Lowery, coming off the rural crime indie Ain't Them Bodies Saints and likewise a seemingly odd choice to helm a family picture, endeavors to keep both generations entertained by going full Spielberg, complete with push-in close-ups and overbearing melodramatic score. He even sets the film in 1982, although it would be hard to discern that from all the anachronistic cars, clothes and hairstyles throughout.
But Lowery does make the most of the opportunity, setting a dreamy, mystical tone that should help audiences suspend disbelief. The film is jam-packed with luscious landscape cinematography of fog and mountains and trees, with New Zealand posing as Cascadia, America's logging region. It also opens with a heartbreaking scene that might as well be dubbed "Bambi's Revenge," as a deer crossing the road leads to a car crash that kills 4-year-old Pete's (Oakes Fegley) parents. Then, before the opening credits have even rolled, he and we meet Elliott, the eponymous dragon.
How one feels about Elliott, the movie's stand-in for E.T., will probably determine how one feels about the film as a whole. There can be no question that Weta Digital's thousands of hours of painstaking work broke new ground here, setting new technical standards for future CGI creatures that will be difficult to top. They also no doubt spent a lot of time studying dogs, applying remarkably subtle lessons in how they sniff, scratch and emote in their rendering of this digital dragon.
Alas, at least for my part, the end result left me flat. The creature on the screen struck me as one part Falkor from The Neverending Story (a good thing), but then also maybe two or three parts the early 2000s CGI Scooby Doo (a decidedly less good thing). The film only works if it is able to tap into a childlike sense of wonder, an invocation of magic, to believe that Elliott is real and good and lovable, and not just a clump of pixels. It never had that effect for me, but obviously, your mileage (and those of your children) may vary.
For those who don't fall under the dragon's spell, little things that might not otherwise matter start to come to the forefront. Like, the fact that the film doesn't really have what we would generally call a "plot," in which there's a conflict that needs resolution. It flirts with some sort of environmental theme, but seems to forget that pretty quickly.
Or that I haven't mentioned the cast — which includes Bryce Dallas Howard as a local park ranger, Wes Bentley as her logger boyfriend and Robert Redford as her wood-carver father who spins folksy tales for the local children about that time he, too, saw the dragon — mostly because they are, largely, unmemorable.
All movies are corporate products, which need not preclude them from also being art, or at least being entertaining. But in the case of Pete's Dragon, what we get is more just a pretty package. The powers that be forgot to put anything fun inside.