Pete’s Dragon Review: Finally, A Remake Worth Making
Pete’s Dragon is a live action remake of the 1977 Walt Disney animated musical about a boy and his dragon best friend that is now available on the Disney+ streaming service. In this review, we’ll cover whether the movie is worth watching.
Directed by David Lowery, the new live action version of the film is a reimagining of Disney’s family film by the same name, and chronicles the adventure of an orphaned boy named Pete and his best friend Elliott the dragon. Pete’s Dragon stars Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, and Oona Laurence.
The premise is that Mr. Meacham delights local children with stories of a mysterious dragon that lives deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. His daughter Grace believes this is just talk until she meets 10-year-old orphan Pete, who claims to live in the woods with a giant, friendly dragon. With help from a young girl named Natalie, Grace sets out to investigate if this fantastic claim can be true…
No studio would touch the idea of an animated “reboot” of Citizen Kane. It’s a laughably bad idea for a number of reasons, the primary being the legacy of the source material. You’ve probably already dismissed the idea out of hand, as a stupid joke that typifies this blog’s poor attempts at humor. However, this is essentially what Disney has been doing of late with its live action remakes: taking their animated classics and redoing them in live action.
While this has caught the ire of some Disney fans, the general public has generally been okay with. The live action reboots (or retellings, or whatever) have done well at the box office. I’m not quite sure why people have been so accepting, considering they are remaking films that are unequivocal classics. My guess is it’s partly a mix of people dismissively viewing animation as cartoons, coupled with reboots/remakes becoming the “new normal” for Hollywood. Whatever the reason, I personally view remaking Cinderella no differently than remaking Citizen Kane.
Some dude once said “you can’t top pigs with pigs” (and no, he was not advocating against swine stacking competitions). That sorta seems like sage wisdom here. What’s the point in remaking such an exquisitely-done piece of art? Perhaps things could be done differently, but the remake is always going to be inferior, so why bother? It would be like redoing the Mona Lisa because you think you have a bold new vision for her nose. So what? Who cares?
That’s more or less how I’ve felt about Disney’s live action remakes. I’ve seen them all and while all have been passable, competently-made flicks, none struck me as all that memorable, or bringing anything new to the table sufficient to justify their existence. (The Jungle Book is arguably the other exception to this because Christopher Walken, among other things.)
At the end of each, I wished I would’ve just watched the animated classic. I understand Disney’s motive in remaking its best animated films from a commercial perspective. From an artistic perspective–perhaps how a creative company should be considering things–they have seemed like misguided decisions.
If anything, Disney should be remaking its worst films. The ones that had a kernel of a good idea, but just didn’t work for whatever reason.
Enter Pete’s Dragon. The original contained a sound premise, but the finished product was an awful mess. When I wrote similarly harsh words in our Pete’s Dragon Blu-ray Review, people on Facebook articulated reasoned and respectful responses espousing the bases for their disagreement, as is the customarily high level of discourse on Facebook. (Hahahahahahahahahahah…aaaaahahahaha. But seriously, I think I was only called an idiot a few times.) Sorry, Pete’s Dragon fans, but I think even the most fervent of you would have to concede that a big part of your enjoyment is rooted in nostalgia.
Fortunately, the remake does not suck! In fact, aside from the name of the film and the boy and dragon thing, this film is more a mix of E.T., King Kong, and My Neighbor Totoro than it is the original Pete’s Dragon. Out of those, I found the most parallels between it and the final film on that list, a film similarly dealing with themes of coping, survival, and–most importantly–childlike senses of awe & wonder.
Throughout Pete’s Dragon, I felt this sense of awe. As Pete interacted and flew with Elliot in breathtakingly fantastic scenes, I couldn’t help but smile. When other characters encountered him for the first time, I approached the scene vicariously through their eyes. There are sweeping fantasy scenes in Pete’s Dragon that are beautiful, fun, and left me feeling like a kid. I felt invested in the well-being of the titular characters, and their respective journeys were incredibly satisfying as both characters were well developed and portrayed.
Speaking of Elliot’s portrayal, the film’s existence can also be justified by the amazing CGI that is utilized to bring Elliot to life. And bring him to life, did it ever. This is not just some special effect: he is the best character in the film, with detailed mannerisms and a range of emotions conveyed in such a sense that you really empathize with him. If anything, the animated Elliot in the original was more of a gimmick than the CGI in this one (albeit a necessary gimmick since technology did not allow for anything better at the time). Here, modern CGI allows for a fully-realized Elliot in a way that exemplifies how CGI should be used.
This is not to say the film is not without flaws. I didn’t think the vindication of Robert Redford’s character felt earned, among other minor quibbles. Of my complaints, the biggest is that a logger named Gavin is the antagonist, and it’s unclear whether he’s a “bad guy” or sorta just a MacGuffin to reach the film’s climax. He and his motives struck me as pretty flimsy, and I would’ve preferred if this whole element of the plot were abandoned.
It’s almost as if he exists solely because this type of film “must” have conflict. Personally, I think it would’ve been better off without, and instead focused on the wide-eyed fantasy of the relationship between Pete and Elliot, and how that must evolve (there’s the ‘friction’ if the story needs it). Of course, perhaps this is just personal preference, and my preference would’ve lacked a conventional arc, possibly leaving audiences wanting more.
Regardless, Disney has made a beautiful film here that allows adults to revisit their youth and let their imaginations run wild. Kids will love it because what kid doesn’t love dragons?! Adults will love it because it makes them feel like kids again. That is the essence of Pete’s Dragon, and although it’s a deceptively simple film, it’s deceptively powerful. This was a good choice for the remake treatment, and I hope other stories with unrealized potential (The Black Cauldron, anyone?) are chosen in the future, rather than continuing to go to the “cash grab” well.
Pete’s Dragon is now available on Disney+ for streaming. Check out our Best Movies & Shows to Watch on Disney+ for our top recommendations. For more info about Disney Plus, read our Is Disney+ Worth It? Review, Library Info, Pros & Cons which is our ultimate guide to the service, covering everything you need to know if you’re thinking of subscribing!
If you’ve seen Pete’s Dragon (this version or the original…or both), what did you think of it/them? Are you planning on seeing this film? Do you agree or disagree with our review? Any questions we can help you answer? Hearing your feedback–even when you disagree with us–is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts below in the comments!
i’ve actually never seen the original. if we start our trial of disney plus, it’s on our watchlist.
In the article you point out that “From an artistic perspective—perhaps how a creative company should be considering things…”, but here’s the problem with that statement. The company hasn’t had a creative leader at the tippy top since Walt died. Since then it’s been “Money Men”, and with that most decisions are made from a financial point of view.
Consider how many times Walt had to talk Roy into spending money on something that wasn’t “a sure thing” (Disneyland, Snow White, etc.). We’ve had a variation of Roy running the company since 1966 and it shows through the lack of innovation, high number of remakes, and direct to DVD sequels.
Once in a while a creative person raises a department to a quality level (like John Lassiter is doing with Animation today), but eventually the money people make life hell for that person so they quit (Jeffrey Katzenberg) or fire them (John Lassiter: the Early Years).
This is why Disney sometimes churns out product that, creatively, is garbage, but looks good on a spreadsheet.
You can redo the Mona Lisa- paint her eyebrows and eyelashes back on.
Nice post, I think you bring up a lot of good points about the worst films being most worthy of remakes. I have not seen this movie and will probably hold out for DVD. I want to comment on your idea of all live action remakes being forgettable.
I generally agree with the sentiment and wish the trend would stop, however, I feel like you overlooked a truly great (modern) classic. Maleficent was exceptionally done. From the special effects, to hearing the ‘other’ side of the story (which I think did undeniably bring something new to the table), and Angelina’s fantastic performance, I really do think this movie was a valid supplement to the original film. I realize this isn’t a traditional remake, and also was not especially well-received among critics, but I thought it was worth mentioning that some of us absolutely loved it. I saw it three times in theaters and I haven’t done that since some of the early HP movies 😉
Thanks for the review. I’ll probably check this one out even though I’ve avoided most of the remakes. On that subject, I’d love to view the originals as sacrosanct like you seem to do, but it’s hard when Disney milks them all the time in so many ways: we don’t go to Target and see Citizen Kane smiling coquettishly from a bath towel, a roll of wrapping paper and a bike helmet. Similarly there are no direct-to-video “sequels” of that film (one hopes).
Compounding the problem is that few of the original stories belong to Disney, so we see other studios mess around with them from time to time anyway. If I recall correctly it was Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland that got the ball rolling on these live action retreads, and a Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland has been inevitable since he first established his aesthetic; if not with Disney it would have happened somewhere else.
Ha, valid point about Disney’s blatant attempts at commercializing the IP in the films to the greatest extent possible. I guess I differentiate plushes based on characters (and that sort of thing), from the core artistic product, which is the movie. I similarly detested the direct-to-video sequels and am glad those have ceased. (For what it’s worth, I think those direct to video releases were FAR worse than any of these remakes–and a much more blatant cash grab, even if on a smaller scale. At least Disney is trying with these films.)
I’ll gladly blame Tim Burton for starting this trend. The way I see it, he’s responsible for many problems with modern cinema. He, and Michael Bay. 😉
Just saw it. My dad and sister liked it A LOT. The child actors were good, Bryce Howard was good, Robert Redford was good. Tom is right, you do care what happens to the characters. The dragon was endearing.
I have to chime in for the remake of Cinderella which I thought was transcendent and beautifully directed by Kenneth Branagh. I had asked Tom to comment on it around the time it first hit the theaters and was puzzled by his silence. I almost always agree with his evaluations of all things and was disappointed that as a photographer he wasn’t mesmerized by the sheer visual beauty. Today, based on his enthusiasm, i went to see Pete’s Dragon. I had seen the preview at Disney World recently and understood the entire arc from that flashing compression of scenes. It wasn’t bad but it wasn’t really very special either. There’s a moral in here somewhere,.. I would like Tom to give Cinderella another viewing without being hindered by his stance on remakes. I’m just now wondering if he is possibly unwittingly transferring his love of Figment onto Elliot?
The reason I was probably silent on it was because I saw Cinderella on a flight to Japan around the time it was released, and don’t typically respond to comments while I’m traveling…and then forget about them when I get back. 😉
As to my thoughts on that, it was a fine film, capably produced and fairly pretty, albeit CGI-heavy (in an unnecessary way). It didn’t strike me as anything memorable. My biggest issue with it, as with the upcoming Beauty and the Beast remake, is that it was totally unnecessary and I don’t think it will be remembered a decade from now. It wasn’t made because some filmmaker had any new vision for the story–it was made because Disney knew people would pay to see live action Cinderella.
Given Disney’s legacy as a creative company, that strikes me as problematic. Instead of taking risks on something new, they drink from the same well on a safe movie that will be bankable thanks to its association with an animated classic. Same goes for a lot of the sequels that have been or are being made. I don’t believe for a second that there weren’t better original ideas that could’ve gotten the greenlight, but instead some executive decided the safer choice would be a remake/sequel…
As for Figment/Elliot, I think both can be explained the same way: I love fantastic, whimsical stories that capture the essence of youth and imagination. Beyond those two characters, I see this a lot in Pixar, WDAS, and Studio Ghibli films. This was the rare live action film that captured that same spirit.
Agreed that this one is the best of the remakes to date… I think a real strength of this one is that the boy who plays Pete is a significantly better actor than the mugging Mowgli kid from The Jungle Book (I won’t repeat that on FB either so as to avoid the “well-reasoned responses” it’s sure to generate).
I also liked the tone and feel of the movie — set in the late 70’s/early 80’s before smartphones and Internet would have made the story harder to tell; makes this more of a tale. The cinematography is wonderful, and seems to have been shot in a way that slightly flattens out the colors, so it even looks like a film that might have been filmed in the 70’s.
The only thing that I didn’t respond to was the music, which was a little too indie-celtic-precious for my taste. But that’s more of a quibble.
The Original is one I loved as a kid and always considered a “classic” as I grew up.
Then I watched it again around 10 years ago.
Wow! What a piece of crap! And what a dumb kid I must’ve been. Lol.
But I’m really excited about this remake.
And so happy to read your positive review along with so many others.
Hollywood has always done remakes. Always will.
Heck The Maltese Falcon is something like the third version of that particular Dashiell Hammett story. They finally got it right and no matter how many times they make it again, the one with Bogart will continue to be the one most people know and love.
As ThouroughbredOfSin mentioned, the Clooney/Damon remake of Ocean’s Eleven is better than the original. In the ’80s there were remakes of both The Thing and The Fly that are obviously superior to the schlocky versions from the ’50s. His Girl Friday brought a twist to The Front Page that resulted in a better movie back in 1940. The Menken/Ashman version of Little Shop of Horrors is better than the Roger Corman original and I would argue that 1978’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers is both more interesting and more spine-tingling than the one from the ’50s.
That said, I pretty much agree with you that the live action remakes Disney has been doing are mostly passable at best. There’s a lot to recommend about The Jungle Book, but I was left mildly aghast over the way the songs in it were handled. Having Baloo and Mowgli sing “Bare Necessities” as a shared song that Baloo knows makes complete sense in the context of the mostly realistic world they inhabit. Unfortunately the movie then ruins that by having Walken’s King Louie perform “I Wan’na Be Like You” as a fully choreographed song and dance number. And then there are NO MORE SONGS. I can’t think of a single excuse for this approach that isn’t being made by a suit who knows nothing about musicals. It took a really good adaptation of the material and gave me an annoying itch that cannot be scratched. I sure hope it wasn’t Jon Favreau’s idea.
I’m excited for this one because the original leaves a lot of room for improvement. (I’m similarly un-excited about Beauty and the Beast for the same reason). While the original Cinderella is a classic, I still liked the remake – I was fine with a more emotionally touching story and removing some of the mouse slapstick.
I’m really excited about Beauty and the Beast. It seems more like bringing the Broadway musical to the movies with Disney magic. I don’t like to judge the movies before they come out, but I am excited for that one.
Hey Tom, Variety reported earlier this year that Disney purchased the movie rights to the entire Chronicles of Prydain book series, of which Black Cauldron is number 2, so your wish is (probably) coming true!
That is FANTASTIC news.
Given how desperately Hollywood has been searching for content to adapt (and re-adapt), it’s kind of amazing that a series like Prydain could go 50 years with only 1 attempt at an adaptation.
I wonder if they’ll keep all of the Welsh terminology, or if they’ll use “Castle” instead of “Caer”, and so on.
Hmmm, I’m not sure if I agree with you about the remakes being inferior to the originals. IMHO, a lot of the belief that remakes are inferior is rooted in nostalgia for old classics. The Jungle Book was a very good movie with absolutely stunning CGI. Cinderella had beautiful visuals as well and a very good cast. Malificent (I realize it wasn’t quite a remake but still) was a very clever and creative way to switch perspective. Or maybe I’m just a sucker for Angelina Jolie :). On the other hand, I consend that the Alice remakes were terrible but the original wasn’t a very good movie either (IMO). I haven’t seen Petes Dragon yet but will in a few days. And I’m excited beyond belief for the Beauty and the Beast remake!!!!!! (I love Emma Watson). I guess at the end of the day it really boils down to personal nostalgia and opinion. For me as a millennial, these remakes are unarguably better, but I respect that your opinion is different! And thanks for the thoughtful review!!
I genuinely liked Cinderella’s remake, thought Jungle Book was fine but didn’t justify its existence, the first Alice was okay but had an awful ending, and Maleficent is the worst movie I’ve ever seen in theatres. I wasn’t excited about Pete, but the positive reviews are slowly changing that.
I don’t think the reboot thing is the public dismissing the old movies as cartoons. They also don’t care Ben Hur or Magnificent Seven are getting remakes (I realise those are still being remade into live action, but still). I get the sense it’s sort of an excuse to see a movie they like on the big screen again, since no one in Hollywood seems to know how to effectively reissue movies to the cinema and make it an event. I dream of a year+ event in which Disney releases the whole animated canon (in order) back into theaters each for a week only.
The best thing that ever came out of the original Pete’s Dragon was the song “Candle on the Water” done barbershop-quartet style by Kristin Chenoweth on the show Pushing Daisies. Look it up on YouTube; it’s a riot.
I’m really excited for this movie. The original was awful… The boy was basically a slave, the two brothers threatened to rape the school teacher (in song form of course) and it just isn’t a good kids film. I feel like if people watched it as adults and listened they’d see it different. I don’t understand why people refuse to see the new one just on principle. But nostalgia clouds judgement right? this movie looks beautiful and charming.
Great. Now let’s see the Boatniks remake. http://video.disney.com/watch/the-boatniks-trailer-4beae8fcda631dc60c94e3f9
“If anything, Disney should be remaking its worst films. The ones that had a kernel of a good idea, but just didn’t work for whatever reason.”
Absolutely! For example, the original “Ocean’s Eleven” was terrible. But the remake, while not necessarily a classic, was infinitely better. My votes for remakes from the Disney canon would go to the “North Avenue Irregulars” and “Flight of the Navigator.”