Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon

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A young boy puts his dragon friend’s life in danger when he befriends some humans from a nearby town.

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David Lowery, 2016

Following his parents’ death in a car accident as a small boy, Pete (Oakes Fegley) wanders into the woods where he meets a new friend: a big, furry, green, flying dragon, whom he names Elliot. Six years later, Pete sees a forest ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) exploring the woods. Grace’s father Meacham (Robert Redford) scares the children of town with the story of how he encountered a dragon in the woods when he was younger, but Grace remains firmly sceptical. Pete is lured from hiding by the prospect of playing with a girl his own age – Natalie (Oona Lawrence), whose father Jack (Wes Bentley) runs the town’s logging company and also happens to be Grace’s boyfriend. Grace and Jack bring Pete into town out of concern for his welfare, and Grace begins to see the truth about his best friend. Elliot struggles to reunite with Pete, but he’s tracked by Gavin (Karl Urban), Jack’s brother, who is determined to put their town on the map.

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Pete’s Dragon is a remake of a truly weird Helen Reddy-starring 1977 Disney movie about a kid running away from abusive hillbillies and his talking, singing cartoon dragon. This new film isn’t weird. It isn’t quirky, or fun, or particularly noteworthy. The script is threadbare, workmanlike at its best moments and hackneyed at its worst. It’s set in the 80s, presumably in order to dodge thorny issues of cell phones and satellite cameras, but this is never explicitly stated, so it’s largely just confusing as to why they don’t ever try to use technology. Bryce Dallas Howard once again tries her best, developing predictable, rote scenes into emotionally affecting moments. Future Oscar Winner Oona Laurence also continues to steal scenes, but the men of the movie fare worse. Oakes Fegley works better as a feral child wandering the woods than in the dramatic scenes, Robert Redford seems to have just woken up from a nap during every mumbled scene, Wes Bentley plays the most pointless character I’ve seen in a while, and Karl Urban feels like he’s constantly on the set of a different movie. He’s eating up the scenery, only connecting with the central characters towards the end of the film, even though there are definitely aspects of his antagonist that could be more interesting to explore.

The film is full of such missed opportunities, skimming past important character notes and pivotal scenes to show more helicopter shots of the forest. The decision to show Elliot in full in dim light right at the start of the film is a strange one. It diminishes the wonder and the magic of the film, something that it really needs in order to thrive. There are definitely some magical moments – that thrill you miss at the beginning comes during a moment at the end – but the film seems to be mining its material to find them. Gorgeously though it’s shot, the film contains far too many long, pretty shots at the expense of its storytelling. The film also contains an unsettling thread of endorsing traditional gender roles for no discernible reason. Grace, who is a badass forest ranger with amazing hair, is reduced primarily to a caring role while the men handle the action. Natalie is also given primarily nurturing jobs to do, keeping well away from the action. Every single person working in law enforcement or logging is male, while all the doctors and nurses are female. Splitting up Elliot and Pete for so long leads to some heart-wrenching moments, but it also means we don’t get a good sense of their friendship – and we are robbed of their reunion scene, a fatal flaw in a movie based on the importance of that friendship. There is, however, a significant improvement in the quality of the third act, when all the pieces of the puzzle finally come together for a dramatic finale with real stakes at play. This is when the beautiful cinematography, solid actors, and heartfelt relationships finally come together to make the movie sing. Unfortunately, it happens too late to redeem the movie.

Pete’s Dragon on IMDb

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