Film Review: Pete’s Dragon

by Chad Liffmann on August 12, 2016

Recapturing that ol’ warm fuzzy Disney feeling.

The biggest kind of warm fuzzy.

The biggest kind of warm fuzzy.

For those who remember the 1977 Disney classic, Pete’s Dragon, you may wonder why an obscure title such as that one would need a remake. To be honest, the remake doesn’t answer that question. But nevertheless, the new Pete’s Dragon is a very charming family film. Pete’s Dragon has an old school magical feel to it, with similar familial themes to classic 1970s Disney films such as The Apple Dumpling Gang, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, Escape to Witch Mountain, and the original of the same nameAside from the less-than-ideal usage of country-tinged pop songs to convey the right emotions we should be feeling, and the absence of musical numbers, Pete’s Dragon is a solidly executed and delightful adventure.

The dragon, named Elliott, in the original 1977 film was a dancing, singing (“bum bum bum bum”), scaly green minstrel with canine mannerisms. The new dragon, also Elliott, is a green-furred growler with canine mannerisms. Basically, the updated CGI version of the original dragon remains strikingly similar. Elliott is befriended by Pete (Oakes Fegley), an orphaned boy who spends the greater part of his childhood alone in the woods with only Elliott as company before a chance meeting with a young girl named Natalie (Oona Laurence) and her dad’s forest ranger girlfriend Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard). Rounding out the solid cast is Natalie’s father, Jack (Wes Bentley), his brother Gavin (Karl Urban) and Grace’s wood-carver father, Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford). Meacham and Gavin provide the story with opposing forces, with Meacham as the wise elder who had spread the legend of woodland dragons surrounding their small country town of Millhaven, and Gavin as the ambitious hunter/wood mill worker who aims to capture Elliott. Despite the being the role of the “villain”, Gavin is given some nice human moments as to not make him a one-dimensional evil character, which is quite nice for a change.

Pete’s Dragon is, without a doubt, a wholesome family film. However, there are scary elements involved. The film’s opening is extremely sad and tragic, and the finale is more action-packed and perilous than expected. Nevertheless, the themes of belonging and family are strongly present from beginning to end. If it wasn’t for the forced musical cues, the direct sentimentality in the dialogue wouldn’t feel so overbearing. Unfortunately, there are at least three moments in Pete’s Dragon where the score cuts out in favor of guitar-twanging pop songs with over-direct lyrics that tell us how to feel. Score would have been preferred, especially with such wonderful high-flying score composed by Daniel Hart.

The solid performances are buoyed by the wonderful animation of Elliott, with voice work from long-time voice artist John Kassir. Like Toothless and Hiccup from How to Train Your Dragon, it doesn’t take long to feel the strong bond between Elliott and Pete, which only grows more complex and emotional over the course of the film. Elliott’s gliding rides through the sky are gorgeously choreographed, and his canine tendencies (fetching sticks, chasing his tail, growling etc.) are incredibly charming. And for adults, the film does a good job of subtly relaying the metaphorical meanings behind Elliott’s presence and actions. He not only represents Pete’s bravery, but also an environmentalist force. Pete’s Dragon brings the story into the modern age by adapting an environmentalist position, and though it doesn’t beat us over the head with that message, it is obvious through the choice of characters and woodland setting.

Like The BFG earlier this summer, Pete’s Dragon adapts previous material in a way that retains the magic of the original work. There’s enough adventure, humor, and love in Pete’s Dragon to pit its entertainment value against any family film that’s been released in the last five years. For children unfamiliar with the 1977 film, Pete’s Dragon is a worthy version for the new generation. And if you don’t think so, at least the plush Elliott toys are adorable.


Pete’s Dragon opens in theaters this Friday, 8/12.


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