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“Pete’s” dull and generic “Dragon”

dvnxj5nde6cjj-hzmo4lodtu15ulbzdj-largeThere 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.

Rental Corner: Soft spot for “Pete’s Dragon”

Yes..I have a huge soft spot for this one...I can't help it!

Yes..I have a huge soft spot for this one…I can’t help it!

Growing up as a kid, I’m sure we all had our share of Disney films we so dearly hold onto. For some, its “Mary Poppins” and her morals. For others, its riding with Captain Nemo and fighting a giant squid. And then there are those who are more lighter and go for the goofy, campy and silly like “Babes in Toyland.” For me, “Pete’s Dragon” falls into the middle of this. It has some morals about prejudice and belief but doesn’t feel mature enough for adults while being very silly for a kid’s film. I guess I’m too late to admit I found myself watching this movie more than most of what I had in my video collection. As a kid, I kept coming back to it for its silly nature and I had a thing for dragons back then. This was about pre-“Dark Crystal” when I was watching a lot of upbeat kid movies with the exception of some Don Bluth here and there. The case goes is that whatever was in my VHS library was what I would watch or if I bumped into anything on TV. “Mary Poppins” wasn’t in my shelf and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”  wouldn’t be discovered until I was 7 or 8. But now that I’m older and my opinion is changing on some past childhood favorites, I never had the courage to visit this one again for fear of finding not as great as I hoped. But to my surprise, I feel a good portion of it holds up but yet has flaws.

Our story opens when young Pete is on the run for an abusive family named the Gogans who newly adopted him. It also doesn’t help the Gogans fall into the pit of hillbilly stereotypes with southern accents and slang that make you wonder if they were leftovers from the Country Bear Jamboree. But as luck may have it, Pete is best friends with a dragon named Elliot (voice by Charlie Callas but animated by Don Bluth…yes, that Don Bluth!!!) who helps him escape to a fishing town named Passamaquoddy where the welcome is promising but finds that trying to keep a giant mythical creature is not easy as it appears. Elliot has the ability to turn invisible but his presence doesn’t go unnoticed by innocently destroying property damage and causing a mess.

With the two against one little boy, Pete finds comfort in a lighthouse keeper named Nora (Helen Reddy) who takes after the orphan like a mother. What works best about the scenes they share is how open minded she acts towards the talk of Pete’s dragon and her tough but kind-hearted attitude. She is given a backstory about her husband being lost at sea that is a little too syrupy but leads into one of the best numbers of the film (“Candle on the Water”) that is executed with such beautiful subtle that you wish more of the movie was like this.

As opposed to being mature like “Mary Poppins,” “Pete’s Dragon” seems to obtain a lot of charm and goofiness. A good example is Nora’s father, Lampie (played by the late Mickey Rooney) who would rather live up to the name “town drunk” than mange the lighting of the lighthouse. Once in a while, Lampie’s comic relief works when he’s playing off of Elliot and trying to prove to people the dragon is real. But other than that, Mickey’s performance misses a lot of heart for scenes when he’s telling Nora to be realistic about her situation. The only thing memorable about this character is the comedy and sadly lacks in heart. Which is a shame knowing how Mickey Rooney can easily balance between the two. He’s still fun to watch but I wish there was more “George Banks” in him.

The saving grace of the movie comes 40 minutes in with the arrival of a scheming medical showman named Dr. Terminus and his sidekick Hoagy. The medicines he gave to Passamaquady leave such a negative impact to the point they want to throw him out but are easily conned after seeing what his new elixirs can do. Its long till he finds out about Pete’s dragon and the many uses his parts provide for such medical cures to point he sees dollar signs. Jim Dale’s performance as the villainous medicine man is such a delight that it makes this element the only thing worth seeing. His character design looks and feels like the classic archetype with the twirled mustache, cape and top hat but Jim has so much fun with the role that we can’t help but soak in his ecstatic performance. His lackey played by Red Buttons also shares some hilarious screen time when the two play off of each other which is close to the classic vaudeville sketches of Abbot and Costello.

While “Pete’s Dragon” is bright and cheery to look at, there is a lot of edginess that is missing here. Unlike the Banks family in “Mary Poppins” and the Nazis in “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” the tone of this movie is more akin to cotton candy. Its light, fun but you wish there was some kind of boldness to it. The final act tosses in elements like a big storm and the citizens planning to capture Ellior but it all feels laid back and doesn’t make much an impact. Even the townspeople are so easily lead over the simplest of things that if you told them the answer to life, the universe and everything was “42,” I’m sure they would believe it in a heartbeat.  And if Dr. Terminus fooled them all the first time, how is it they are able to be sucked into his cons for the second even considering the hinted track record he has? I guess you could argue its making a satirical point about how people can be easily fooled like sheep but even people in the early 1900’s wouldn’t be that dumbfounded. Even the place is run by Mr. Magoo himself! Jim Backus plays the mayor of the town and plays it so stupid that its funny seeing how straight he is all of the pratfalls he takes but is too easy of a comic foil.

If that wasn’t enough, the finale is so easily rushed that it nearly doesn’t much of an impact. The people see Elliot is not that bad after one little good deed and suddenly they are all praising him. Even a character that is a somewhat central plot element gives an explanation of  his disappearance that is so exposition, we barley buy it. And of course, those Gogans who seem to mug and act villainous so much that it borderlines between creepy and too awkward. The first number they share in the opening has them searching for poor Pete while some of them discuss the awful things they want to do to him. For a song executed in such a cheery way, its questionable morbid. Not to mention how much they keep plotting how much they plan for Pete to be their farming tool for life. Nothing is fun about these characters outside of their attempts at being devious. In short, these characters really annoy me and I’m glad we don’t see much of them.

But for all its problems, there is a lot of good elements. I enjoy the interactions between Pete and Elliot that remind me of when I would interact with imaginary friends. The two understand each other and the obstacles in the way to the point we almost feel like Elliot is a part of Pete’s imagination. In fact, the idea of a kid having a dragon for a friend is a great idea and it doesn’t feel wasted here. Even Elliot is something to admire with his soft and roundish design while his talk in gibberish is cute. I’m actually glad they didn’t have a normal voice and just let Elliot say nonsense. It would seem like giving him a voice would have been the typical route but thankfully they don’t do that. Even the special effects are still great to watch when Elliot goes invisible and causes mayhem with picket fences moving on there own and footprints appearing in wet cement. For 1977, the technical work still looks great and you have to admit they were really thinking through on how to make an invisible dragon really feel like he was there. So props to that.

As said, some of the characters are fun to watch and the songs are honestly well-written. While they are not Sherman Brothers success, there are a good handful of songs I’m sure I’ll still be humming long after. Dr. Terminus’ “Every Little Piece” is sung in a such a giddy vaudevillian way that its not too hard to enjoy it while “There’s Room for Everyone” and “It’s Not Easy” carries a nice little beat to it that feels nice and soft. Other numbers like “I Saw a Dragon” and “The Happiest Home In These Hills” suffer for taking a simple thing and blowing it out of proportion when it could have been a simple scene or just a small song. But I’m sure everyone will agree the Oscar-nominated “Candle on the Water” is sure to steal some hearts. The haunting melody and elegant lyrics are a beautiful match that I can’t give enough praise for it. Helen Reddy was a very big name at the time for her singing and her performance of this soft yet bittersweet tune.

In today’s age, “Pete’s Dragon” has a very split audience. There are those who appreciate it for what is and those who wish it was something more. While I do wish this had more edge, I think it holds up or at least in the places where it does. I’m not going to act like this is a perfect masterpiece because I am aware of its problems. Its just an overly upbeat Disney flick that might turn people off for its cheery nature and overblown tone. My argument is that this the cheesy and cheery is actually just right for this movie. There’s a Disney movie musical called The Happiest Millionaire that has the same corny feel but is really overbloated in its near 3 hour length. You heard me right! Another Disney movie has the same about of cheesiness and overblown stuff and is at a near running time of 3 hours. Perhaps, the existence of “Pete’s Dragon” is not all bad when you think it that way.

As for my opinion, I still have a soft spot for this movie and I’m sure I will keep revisiting it in the future. Its just a little optimistic flick that is sitting on my shelf in case of a rainy day or when I feel depressed. We all have that one movie we loved in our childhood know it has a lot of flaws but can’t bring ourselves to come out and say, “hands down, movie bad.” And for this one, that is exactly how I feel. Sure it has problems but I’m not too ruined by it. “Pete’s Dragon” is still one of favorite movies to this day. I understand where viewers are coming fron in its flaws but for me, its just an overly cheery and laid back Disney flick that I can’t help but still enjoy.