Before I start this review, I must preface that the original classic musical version of Pete's Dragon is one of my favorite Disney films of all time. For me, it is up there with Mary Poppins itself. So, needless to say, I did not warm up to the idea of a non-musical dramatic remake.
Let's be clear. This film isn't a musical. It doesn't have bumbling white slaver hillbillies. It doesn't have a lovable drunkard lighthouse keeper. There isn't a flamboyant snake oil man and his equally lovable drunkard assistant. And it doesn't have Helen Reddy. In fact, the only similarities is that there is a boy named Pete and his friend dragon Elliott and, one day, Pete is taken in by a young woman who has an eccentric father.
Instead of taking place in idyllic turn of the century Passamaquoddy, Maine, the film takes place in early 80s Millhaven, Oregon. Pete's (Oakes Fegley) parents are killed in a car accident and he is adopted by Elliott, a dragon of legend in the nearby forest, who has protected him for the last 5 years. Pete lives in bliss, unaware of the outside world, until a showdown between lumberjacks and forest rangers reveals him to the public.
It's interesting because I noticed that the original 1977 film seems to hold a special place to many people, particular men, around my age (the mid to late 40s range). I'm not exactly sure why we love the movie so much, but we do. But, for me, I think it might be in part to being around the age of Pete at the time and wanting to have a dragon of my own. So, with that, I went into the new Pete's Dragon by deconstructing it to that level - a boy with a dragon.
And, with that, I loved it. And, that's because I believed the relationship between Pete and Elliott. A big part of the success of this film is Oakes Fegley who plays Pete. His performance reminded me of Neel Sethi as Mowgli in this year's remake of The Jungle Book. He was just perfect. I not only believed his relationship with Elliott, but that he survived in a forest for 5 years. His smile is just infectious. He can make you either laugh or cry with just one look.
As for Elliott himself, I thought he would bug me because he was so different from the original. His wings are dragon sized and he looks more like a classic dragon. But, fortunately, he still has the same kind of lovableness and charm as the original. It took some adjustment, but, sooner rather than later, I believed in him.
Truth be told, I'm not the biggest fan of Bryce Dallas Howard. But, I enjoyed her in the film. She plays Grace, the soft spoken forest ranger with a heart of gold. There is a moment between Grace and Pete where Pete begins to trust her that simply made me cry. And, that was due to both of their performances.
Oona Lawrence's Natalie, the daughter of Grace's fiance Jack (Wes Bentley), was a nice addition to the film. Natalie serves as another touchstone for Pete...somebody to relate in this brave new world he's entered. Wes Bentley's Jack is fine, but not really a necessary character. On some levels, neither is Robert Redford's Meacham. But, hello, it's Robert Redford playing an eccentric man who holds the legend of a dragon and who believes in magic.
Karl Urban plays Gavin, Jack's brother, who serves as the villain of the movie. He's a foreman for the lumber mill run by Jack and feels he has something to prove. He discovers Elliott in the forest with his minions and wants to hunt him down for fame and glory. It's quite a departure from Jim Dale's fabulous Doc Terminus. But, I think Urban's Gavin makes more sense given the context and tone of the film. And, I think Urban does a nice job of making Gavin a jerk, but not necessarily evil.
Now, I've been asked which version I like better. First of all, there's nothing that can make me not love the original. Again, its such a special film to me. But, I can say that I did enjoy the new film and thought they did a good job. It makes me a little sad that this will be the Pete's Dragon to another generation, but, at least I can say I'm a fan of both.