There were many things I questioned when watching the 2016 update of “Pete’s Dragon.” I was well aware director David Lowery wanted this take to be far removed from the 1977 musical. Honestly, I don’t blame him. I have a huge soft spot for the original, but will admit it does have flaws. The 1977 version is bloated and too goofy in certain spots. But perhaps, there is where the entertaining aspect came from. As I tried to accept the new version, I found myself at least appreciating it tried, but found myself hard to be engaged with it. Seeing it did get heavy praise from critics, is there something they missed or is there something wrong with me?
The plot for this new version takes the spine of the original and adds more meat to it. Pete (Oakes Fegley) is now a feral child that lost his family and seeks refuge with the green dragon. I give credit due to Fegley’s acting. His performance is going for a wild child take and it does work. But there was something problematic about it to me. For a kid that is lost in the woods for six years and goes “Tarzan,” chances are his vocabulary will either be limited or his speech will be underdeveloped. Having taken up psychology in college, I read up on cases where kids would be treated and lived like animals to the point they act like primitive; most notable is Victor of Aveyron. For if a child like Pete can’t understand what a balloon is or even the purpose of a sandwich, then why have him speak at all?
The reason for his survival is under the wing of a giant dragon he names Elliot. Much like the original, Elliot is big, green and the ability to turn invisible. What’s different this time around is that he’s all CGI and covered in fur. I guess someone had Falkor from NeverEnding Story in mind when designing him, but it goes against the idea of Elliot’s original design. Not only did Don Bluth animate the 1977 version, but he was also modeled after a Chinese dragon in respect for how good they are. There’s a sense of innocence and mischievous personality that feels lost in the new take. Despite the good efforts of WETA Digital, this new Elliot doesn’t have much personality and takes on the feel of a big dog. Again, I know the intent was to make this akin to being cute, but this Elliot was anything but interesting as the story expects us to know his relationship with Pete and not see it develop. I think it would have been wiser to see their relationship much like how Tarzan grew with the apes in 1984’s “Greystoke” instead of just expecting us to accept it.
The new incarnation is also treated to an array of new elements that are either there to distinguish itself or try and improve things. Gone is the fishing town Passamaquoddy, and we get an unnamed town with a logging industry. Bryce Dallas Howard replaces the character of the lighthouse keeper with a forest ranger that takes Pete in and tries to understand his survival. Robert Redford is underused as a man who claims to have seen the same dragon in comparison to the overzealous town drunk Mickey Rooney played. A scheming medicine doctor is replaced with a hunter (Karl Urban) that seeks to capture the dragon. And the list goes on.
As I watched this new version, I kept wondering just how these different elements work or even pay off in this version. Some of it does have a sense of good set up like a subtle environmental message which disappears once it gets introduced. Even character motives are lost in the group showing perhaps this version should have been thought out more. Once Urban’s character captures the dragon, he claims to have big plans when he honestly just spitballs a few ideas and claims to own the dragon. There is no real motive outside of just existing for the sake of being a conflict here. I even hoped there would be more purpose to things added in like the logging company playing a part or even Redford’s character. But most of is minimally used or gets abandoned upon first sight.
In a nutshell, “Pete’s Dragon” tries to be more like the typical fantasy family film without a drop of edge, but falls into an unfortunate trap. Instead of giving characters with interesting motives and despite doing different things, it falls into the category of boy or family gets a unique creature and does something with it. I can’t tell you how many variations I have seen of this story line ranging from “Harry and the Hendersons” to “*batteries not included” to even “D.A.R.Y.L.” It’s hard to tell if director Lowery’s intentions were to pay homage to these kind of movies, but I can say what sets itself apart from those is a lack of darkness. “Pete’s Dragon” plays itself so safe, that you can very much predict what will happen before the end credits roll. And even then, the samples I just mentioned are FAR more creditable than this one.
This one is certainly harder to recommend simply because it feels more like an outline for a “Pete’s Dragon” reboot and less like an actual fleshed out story. I found myself nearly nodding off at times due to the slow pace and had a hard time trying to keep focus for what was meant to be a simple story. I guess kids might be ok with this movie. And yet after the theatrical experience I had, my thoughts are starting to question that. Midway through the movie, a family actually walked out of the theater as wrapped in their arms was a sleeping kid. Even near the trash cans, a little girl was more fascinated with the garbage instead of the “wonder” on the screen. And she was gone right before the end credits even began. I argue that little kids might be bored or even grow tiresome about midway after how slow and plodding things are. If I walked out on this movie, I wouldn’t have regretted it. But my honest regret about this new “Pete’s Dragon” was not walking out on it.
When dealing with themes of the future, movies have a two-sided coin to present. One says make it bright and hopeful like Hill Valley in Back to the Future Part II while the other says make it darker and grimm like Blade Runner. To present an optimistic view of the future while showing conflict is an even heavier attempt has a movie has to balance between showing the upside to a higher lifestyle while presenting there are conflicts like the society of wealthy vs. poverty in Metropolis. To make these elements into a thought provoking blockbuster is not a bad idea but it depends on how the mixture of these elements get handled. Or else one will end up with such a clunky and off-tone picture as Tomorrowland. As I am sad to say, one of the biggest domestic box-office flops of this year seeing so much effort and talent were thrown in yet little pays off or comes as entertaining.
The premise deals with a hidden utopia on Earth, how it is hidden remains unclear, with a promise of peace and harmony but comes off looking like a giant spa resort of gizmos and gadgets taken from The Jetsons and many other future films. Perhaps I should be more precise and bring up the fact this is based on Disney’s Epcot and Tomorrowland theme park attractions. Which is no surprise seeing certain elements like Space Mountain do appear as Easter Eggs here and there. But as expansive as the giant city is, we don’t spend much time in it. The main focus is the story and characters surrounded by this massive place which I wouldn’t have much of a problem if these elements were at the very least interesting.
Britt Robertson plays a tech-savvy teen that always believes in optimism but it nearly contradicts with her character by means of vandalism to a NASA launch pad being dismantled so her father can remain an engineer. I guess her actions account for something seeing she gets a magic pin that shows her this amazing city but only as a holographic illusion. Even more questioning is the ability of the pin as once one touches it, they see this great world but stuck in the real one as they lumber around like some kind of virtual reality helmet strapped on. Even in one scene, we see her move to the city in a corn field but also falling down the stairs when doing so in real life. If this pin makes an illusion, wouldn’t it be safer to confine it to one room as opposed to having said person meander in real life? What if one touches it and walks around in day time traffic? So much for the future of that poor soul.
Either way, this pin creates such curiosity, that she seeks out the origin of it. All traces lead to a cranky inventor named Frank Walker (George Clooney) who wishes to be left alone then return to the fabled city he was banned from. Apparently, he somehow manages to keep track of the world’s lifespan as an impending doom is set against the Earth. He thinks the young teen has the ability to save it as in much stories where the young hero or heroine is chosen to save the day thanks to her kindness.
In a sense, the film tonally tries to be something along the lines of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where the good kid gets picked due to their ingenuity and despite hardships has a kind heart but I didn’t really get a sense of care for out characters. The performances are fine but just something about the writing feels off in narrative and character wise. The narrative flow gets distracted by Clooney’s flashing back as the structure of the movie is held by first person narrative as we cut back to the character Frank telling viewers what we are watching. An element cleary unneeded as the film can unfold without it.
Outside of Britt’s character having an open mind and Clooney being the man who lost hope, there wasn’t much else I found that really showed a care or motive to hang on to. Maybe its the jumbled narrative or how little we see of the city, but most of the plot feels very spotty that when one character decides to go on a search or move to the next story beat, there isn’t much risk or purpose behind it. She find a pin, goes to see the source, finds out the villains, saved by a sidekick/henchman type character, comes across a grizzled guy, go to futuristic place, find something is wrong and try to fix it. The story is so basic and paper thin that it shouldn’t feel this complex when its being told. And with not much connection to these story beats and directions it takes, why should we care as viewers?
The bigger problem comes in the second half when our heroes make it to Tomorrowland to find it in shambles. Apparently, a last minute conflict comes in the form of Hugh Laurie who plays a pessimistic Governor of the place who knows the secret link between Tomorrowland and the real world as well as why things are crumbling as they are. With the fear of an apocalypse on the way in people’s minds, it feels this is the direction things are heading into. So right off the fly, the message is a no-brainier. Be happy, keep being positive, work toward a bright future and don’t be negative. My problem is how heavy handed this message is and obvious they hammer it through the majority of the movie to the point it becomes more of the focus and less on the story.
To compare, The Peanuts Movie has a similar theme but not as obvious. As Charlie Brown tires to show he can do great things and fails, the more the viewer wants to see him succeed. The message of hope is more well-preserved here because that is not the focus. The focus is the characters and the story so later on, we can look back and remark the trails the protagonist had to endure as we compare them to our lives. Even themes of optimism and pessimism are explored better in Inside Out as we see how one can’t live without positive and negative things. They have to co-exist and co-operate. Tomorrowland takes these elements and instead cooks them into a good vs. evil manner at the last minute that has been done to death.
Without giving too much away, Laurie’s character reveals how people’s positive and negative thinking are essential to the world of Tomorrowland in a reveal so preachy that it undermines the entire message of the movie. With images of doom and gloom plaguing the real world, it has the future seeking to go in that direction unless convinced otherwise seems to be the logical solution. Instead, the final 20 minutes opts for a big action climax instead of a much smarter route like maybe a talk or a way to convince Hugh’s character that convincing people to be positive is a means to make a brighter future. That doesn’t happen. We get a feast of explosions, destruction and a villain’s downfall that is so cliche it makes my blood boil to see what could have been a nice story about building to a better tomorrow turn into a cliche blockbuster romp.
The screenplay was written by Damon Lindelof who credits include Lost and 2012’s Prometheus while Brad Bird co-writes. With this knowledge, it feels like two different movies are mixed in as the ideology of Brad Bird is clashing with the “whizz,” “bang,” and “pow” of an edgy sci-fi movie. Instead of taking a break for character development or perhaps even heart felt moments which are standard of Brad’s work, we find ourselves watching and counting out the story beats as hero goes from point A to B with little interest knowing what will happen next. Times that could have been used for exploring character relationships are traded up for big action set pieces and CGI wonder as a monument turns into rocket ship and people get obliterated by lasers held by evil androids. There is something very tonally off here between the future talk and the action.
And for those who think I’m being “negative” over Brad Bird, I like the guy. I do. I recall The Iron Giant when the metal monster is told how souls can’t die. Or how about the “Krusty Gets Busted” episode from The Simpsons when Bart is trying to convincing himself his hero is not a crook under shades of blue and Krusty merchandise. And need we not forget Mr. Incredible’s dilemma of trying to be a secret superhero and a family man. If Tomorrowland had more charm much like these small scenes that carry so much weight, perhaps I wouldn’t be so harsh. The city might have an interesting design, but under the retro rubble is a clunky and uneven story that crumbles and pods without pay off or impact. If you want a movie about the optimism and pessimism of the future play against itself, I recommend watching the Back to the Future trilogy more seeing themes of controlling one’s future and the negative benefits of a positive change are far better explored. Even movies like Explorers and The NeverEnding Story had a better handle with certain aspects like building to the unknown or trying to maintain hope. Fraggle Rock’s themes of universal peace was better explored without the aspect of violence being involved to solve a problem. Unfortunately, Tomorrowland didn’t do much for me. Aside from the performances being ok, it just came off as dull, preachy and just really a waste of good talent. I feel bad for saying this but the future of this movie looks rather grim as it stands at #4 at my worst of 2015 list.
I often find R. L. Stein interesting as a person. He’s constantly writing books, exploring the world once in a while and always carries a unique story to tell. In his recent biography for kids, named “It Came from Ohio,” he often wrote comedic magazines pioneered independently, had an interesting sense of humor and all around fun guy. From teaching seals to dance and work on Eureeka’s Castle, “Jovial” Bob Stein will be better remembered for his work on the book series Goosebumps. Sort of Tales from the Crypt for kids, I recall reading these in middle school and enjoying them. While they weren’t scary to me, I fondly thrilled at Monster Blood and taking a day in Horrorland. To make a movie based on the nostalgic property alone is a challenge but they tried. In the end, what we get is a film that probably should have come out 20 years ago but still better late then never.
Dylan Minnette is Zach, a high schooler that moves into Delaware after his mother gets a job as a vice principal at his new school. As with this kind of character, we go through the whole phase of him being new in the area even if its brief and add some baggage with a deceased father. This is fine alone and does give some development but it feels like a typical teenager with problems. Not to say it’s a bad thing but I do wish more was written better. You still get to sympathize and thankfully that material is not forced in so I can’t complain.
Zach finds that he is neighbors with a girl his age named Hannah, whose not that bad either. Odeya Rush’s performance is thankfully a step up after last year’s The Giver where she was cold and flat. Here, Rush is given more to work with especially in the later half when a huge twist about the character comes up. Like the character Zack, Hannah is written as a teenager with a simple motive to break out and not be boxed in. The characterization is very simple without too much depth tossed which is good and bad at the same time. You do get chemistry thanks to the performances but wish these people were written with more depth at times.
What stands in the way of Hannah being more social is her dad who is revealed to be R.L. Stein played by Jack Black. Ironic how the real Stein is a fan of Black and even got to work with him a bit behind the scenes to get a variation of Black’s take. The film version of Stein is more sinister and comes off as a cross between Doc Brown from Back to the Future and Dr. Loomis from the Halloween films. Black’s take adds a level of fun and thrills without overdoing it. At times, he does get a little “over the top” but you know this comedian will give it his all no matter what he will be in.
The reason why Stein is locked up in the house is because of how powerful his Goosebumps manuscripts are. Apparently if one were to open then, said monster would pop out and raise havoc. This is evident when the Abominable Snowman of Pasadena appears setting up the rules and tone of the film. The only way to get the creature is to simply get the thing back in the books. Simple enough, but it gets complicated when an evil ventriloquist dummy named Slappy (also voiced by Jack Black) escapes and plans to raise chaos on the small town with all the Goosebumps monsters. Not only does he steal the manuscripts and opens them, but also burns each one ensuring the monsters can’t be sucked back into the pages they came from.
Already the premise sounds familiar and I’m positive you can figure out if you will enjoy this movie or not. Personally, I liked it even when the humor did get awkward or the story got predictable. Once the town gets overrun by lawn gnomes, werewolves, a giant mantis, zombies and many other things, that is when Goosebumps was engaging to me. Sure the stuff in the first third had decent build up but it felt standard and simple. On the other hand, that is what Goosebumps is. The stories of the books never got too in-depth or too complex. They were simple stories that existed to entertain as oppose to frighten and shock.
For what it was, I got what I expected and enjoyed it. However, this isn’t a perfect movie by any means. Some of the special effects can be a tad mediocre and the comedy of characters like a cool wannabe named Champ as well as an aunt that has a strange obsession for bedazzling clothes. Though I can’t think of a time when the humor felt too forced (as I did chuckle at how lame Champ was) and there isn’t any bad messages that is being said. Even effects like the puppetry work on Slappy the evil dummy is surprisingly good considering the low $58 million budget this movie has. In a sense, I do wish there was more edgy as it could have been a great family film but I’m glad I enjoyed what I saw. There are times when it does feel like a tribute to R. L. Stein paying homage to not only his books but even his style as well. Little facts like how he always used a typewriter for his work and the placement of bear traps in the basement add to what kind of person Stein was. A man who never wanted to be taken seriously and just wanted to let his readers have fun with his work.
Now if silly, goofy and campy is not your cup of tea or if your not a fan of the books, then Goosebumps might be the movie your looking for. I’d say this is more like a Disney movie along the lines of Hocus Pocus or Honey, I Shrunk the Kids without the edginess. In fact, much of the film does get thrilling but misses out on the scares. Had this been harder along the lines of Gremlins or Coraline, I do wonder if it would have been a better movie or play it off as too frightening. Seeing these kinds of movies as a kid, I was fine with that I saw but wish there was more to it. Its not that bad to say its the worst but its not perfect either. I just feel it was a good family film that I know kids will enjoy and might be split with the older crowd. If you want to play it safe, rent it. But for anyone else curious, I’m sure you will be fine. There’s plenty of thrills and twists that will keep you engaged and a great watch for the Halloween season. A modest recommendation at best. Just keep in mind to beware, because your in for some ghoulish fun.