Review: PETE’S DRAGON (2016)

By Mark Saldana

Rating 3.5 (Out of 4 Stars)

I have said it before, and I will say it again; if filmmakers can offer a fresh take on a previously made movie, I will give it a chance with an open mind and heart.  Though I am not a huge fan of remakes, I am willing to give writers and directors their chances to put their own spin on the material and perhaps even outshine the original take.  Realistically that doesn’t happen too often, but every so often, it does, as is the case with Disney’s updated version of Pete’s Dragon.   The original film does hold a special place in my heart, as it was one of the first movies which my mother took to the theater to see.  I would later re-watch this fun and entertaining movie musical often, as it was played and re-played a lot on cable television.  Even though that version isn’t as classic and iconic as some of the other movies released by Disney. The kid in me still enjoyed the comedy and entertainment it had to offer.  

Going into the new film, half of me was skeptical, but the other half hoped for a movie that would not only appeal to my inner child, but a movie that also satisfied me as an adult.  I left this film with my heart full of much love and joy.  Written and directed by David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), who co-wrote the screenplay with Toby Halbrooks, this updated version of Pete’s Dragon succeeds in outshining the original movie, bringing a greater level of realism and solid development of the main character of Pete.  Lowery and Halbrooks manage to keep the grounded reality and blend it beautifully with the wide-eyed wonderment and fantasy that is expected of this tale.

Oakes Fegley stars as Pete, an eleven year-old orphan who has lived in a forest with a sweet and lovable dragon he names Elliot.  Pete and Elliot may have lived quietly in the woods for several years; however, they eventually get discovered as a lumber company continues to clear the trees that hide them.  While the company leaders Jack (Wes Bentley) and his brother Gavin (Karl Urban) argue over how conservative they should be with the forest, Jack’s girlfriend, a forest ranger named Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard) discovers Pete as he overlooks what is happening.  Grace, who feels sorry for Pete, temporarily takes him in, but is curious about Pete’s stories about his friend Elliot.  Grace, her father (Robert Redford), and Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) seek out the truth about Elliot, but Gavin, who discovers the dragon, sees him as an opportunity for fame and fortune.

Loosely based on the original film’s screenplay by Malcolm Mamorstein, which is based on the short story by author Seton Miller, this updated version of Pete’s Dragon takes the story to an even higher level with its realistic treatment of the human characters, particularly the superb character development of the protagonist Pete.  My only particular gripe with the film is the lack of development with some of the supporting characters, mainly the brothers Jack and Gavin.  Nevertheless, Lowery and Halbrooks have succeeded in making a truly magical and heartwarming movie that is actually better than the original.

The action and flight sequences breathtakingly soar and make the film truly exhilarating and wonderful.  The drama in the film has its share of beautiful and heartbreaking moments.  The filmmakers keep the comedy natural and genuine, refraining from the cheaper slapstick and pratfalls of the original movie.  This is a fantastic movie for the entire family that will entertain both children and the adults accompanying them.  The story also offers children some valuable messages and lessons.

The movie features some solid performances by the entire cast, but I was mainly impressed with the two youngest stars.  Oona Laurence, who first amazed me with her mature performance in Southpaw delivers another outstanding turn as Pete’s new friend Natalie.  As the only other child in the story, it is perfect that she and Pete bond like siblings in the movie.  Laurence yet again shows a maturity with her acting that most children her age and younger don’t often display in their work.  She shares a lovely chemistry with her co-star Oakes Fegley who does a tremendous job as Pete, a slightly wild and feral child who has a good heart, but lacks social skills and graces.  This is my first real introduction to Fegley who delivers a performance worthy of accolades next year.

And even though I’m not sure the movie itself will do as well during the awards season (still too early to tell), I do hope that the film finds huge audiences at the cinema.  It truly is an exceptional film on its own and one of those rare remakes that transcends the original movie that inspires it. I must highly recommend this movie for children of all ages, their parents, and even adults without children. It is that great.



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