It feels strange to admit this being the Disney fan that I am, but I have never seen the 1977 Disney movie, Pete’s Dragon. At the time of its initial release, it didn’t interest me at all even though Elliot the dragon looked like he would be fun. I re-watched the trailer for the film to refresh my memory and found to have a similar feeling. It didn’t have that “classic” Disney look or feel, but instead looked silly and slap-sticky. Of course, this was also the time when Disney was making its “wacky” comedies like Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo and The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again. (Take a look at the trailer yourself and you’ll see what I mean).
Now, I know that there are many who love the original Pete’s Dragon and have feared that Disney would stomp all over their happy memories, but what Disney has done has created a whole new story that greatly improves the original. The first movie was a musical comedy, the 2016 version is an adventure drama. The first movie’s story takes place in Maine, the new one is centered in the Pacific Northwest and on it goes. However, this isn’t an apples to apples comparison as the two movies couldn’t be more different and yet they have the same heart.
The beginning of this Pete’s Dragon features 5-year-old Pete with his parents driving down the road on their way to a camping trip. They seem like the perfect family. Then BAM! Just like that horrendous scene from Bambi, Pete finds himself all alone and like Bambi’s mother’s fate, the film doesn’t show them, but we know that both mom and dad are dead. I have to admit, this was a little off-putting, but it could have been worse. Fortunately, the story gets better right away. (Side note, I may be wrong, but I think it was done artfully in a way that won’t disturb young viewers. Perhaps they won’t really understand what happened.)
Pete meets a big furry beast (yes, this dragon has fur instead of scales) who seems to know the Pete is all alone and needs someone to care for him. The scene of the two communicating with each other with very little dialogue is actually quite sweet. The scene ends with the two leaving together for new adventures. Now, fast forward six years later.
We meet Meacham (Robert Redford), a friendly old woodcarver who loves to tell tall tales. He earnestly tells the neighbor children about his one-time meeting of a real dragon out in the woods. As it turns out, he actually believes this story and everyone in town thinks he’s a little odd including his own daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard). She’s a forest ranger, has seen every corner of those woods and all of the animals that inhabit there. She’s never seen a dragon and doesn’t care for his stories.
Grace is engaged to Jack (Wes Bentley), a construction manager whose latest project is a little too close to the wildlife for Grace’s liking. It is during this construction project that Pete (Oakes Fegley) comes out to investigate and gets spotted by Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) and then by Grace.
Grace takes Pete home and tries to piece together where his parents are, how he became lost in the woods and exactly who this “Elliot” is. She has child services planned to pick up the boy the next morning, but Pete insists that if she brings him back to his “home” in the woods, he will show her who Elliot is and being that this is a Disney movie, she complies to his request.
Meanwhile, Grace’s future brother-in-law, Gavin (Karl Urban), is convinced that he’s seen a dragon in the woods and is determined to catch it. What he plans to do with it once he gets it is another thing altogether.
Pete’s Dragon is a surprisingly simple story with very little dialogue and actually can be compared to the recent The Jungle Book where Mowgli is raised by wolves and a black panther. The difference here is that in The Jungle Book, the acting of the little boy is pretty weak. Here, the acting of the children is excellent. Howard is sweet and caring without being frilly and looks totally comfortable with the role. Redford of course is wonderful.
The film has strong messages about the value of family without being preachy. As a Christian family man, the only real criticism that I have for the film is that Grace is actually living with her fiancé. Yes, this situation is more and more common in our society, but it isn’t necessary for this story. The movie doesn’t show the couple in bed together or anything and the fact that they’re not married will probably go over most children’s heads anyway. Director David Lowery might have some artistic reason for this, but I don’t know what that could be. Other than that, there really isn’t anything objectionable about the film.
Pete’s Dragon is a delight and will be new favorite for many families. Also, you might want to pack some tissue as there are a few heartstrings-pulling moments, but everything ends up happy in the end. Just as a real Disney movie should be. And as long as they don’t plan for a Pete’s Dragon 2, I’ll be happy.
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