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To some, a forest holds mere trees,
With empty air between,
While one who knows to notice sees
A firmament of green,
Of life and lives and rarities
That few have ever seen.

What wonderments may hide out there
I cannot dare to guess,
But those who speak of creatures rare,
Withdrawn from man’s progress,
Perhaps perceive that empty air
Cannot be magicless.

MPAA rating for 1977 version: G (maybe PG)
MPAA rating for 2016 version: PG

With Disney so dedicated now to translating its past canon of animated classics into live-action films, it’s rather disconcerting that their attempts thus far have been fan favorites, like Sleeping Beauty or Beauty and the Beast, but not the lesser entries in Disney’s catalog. While remakes of The Black Cauldron and The Sword in the Stone are supposedly in the works and would be welcome, Pete’s Dragon is the first recent remake that actually had a chance of surpassing the original simply because the original is fairly lame. Yet, even though a simple updating of the tale could have sufficed, writer-director David Lowery took the essentials of the first story and transformed them into something closer in spirit to E.T. than to their source, providing an example of improvement for future Disney remakes to follow.

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Let’s take a look at the original, a film whose “classic” status is more reliant on its age than anything else. The first Pete’s Dragon sees young Pete and his sometimes invisible dragon Elliott escape from a wicked foster family and seek a home in the seaside town of Passamaquoddy, where kind lighthouse keepers (Mickey Rooney, Helen Reddy) take him in and sneaky snake-oil salesmen (Jim Dale, Red Buttons) plot to capture Elliott. It’s a family-friendly musical in the vein of Mary Poppins, Bedknobs and Broomsticks, and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the key difference being that it came out in 1977, a less innocent time when ultra-sincere stories like this began tasting too saccharine.

The silly musical numbers and childish wish fulfillment simply don’t work as well here, thanks to some dreadfully gee-whiz acting from young Sean Marshall as Pete. There’s a notable lack of Disney magic, perhaps due to a new generation of animators (including Don Bluth) taking the reins at the time, and some elements are downright unpleasant, like the abusive backwoods Gogans, headed by Shelley Winters, who want Pete as their personal slave. The songs range from forgettable to embarrassing, but Helen Reddy’s “Candle on the Water” is a beautiful exception and even earned an Oscar nomination.

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I suppose I shouldn’t be too hard on the original Pete’s Dragon. If I’d seen it as a kid, maybe I’d consider it a classic, as I do Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. The merging of animation and live-action is actually done quite well, and there are some fun moments sprinkled throughout the tiresome ones, like Mickey Rooney’s panic over seeing Elliott or the visiting mountebank who can’t pronounce the name of the town he claims to love. It was also neat seeing Jim Backus of Gilligan’s Island appearing as the town’s mayor. By the overly heartwarming ending, I even was able to recognize why others might find this as charming as Elliott himself. Yet my adult sensibilities couldn’t let me overlook its glaring flaws and often laughable excesses, like the soap opera twist at the end that explains away a character’s year-long absence with amnesia. With these earnest family films, it’s a fine line between delightful and cloying, and Pete’s Dragon is one member of the Disney canon that could have certainly benefited from a remake done right.

Thankfully, almost forty years later, that remake arrived. I debated on whether to call this review a Cartoon Comparison or a Version Variation since the original’s dragon was animated and the latest Elliot was CGI, but since CGI is still animation, I opted for a Version Variation. (Did anyone else notice that the 1977 dragon was named Elliott with two t’s, while the more recent one was Elliot with one t?) Yes, in the 2016 version of Pete’s Dragon, there’s still a boy named Pete and a giant invisible green dragon, but that’s really all this film has in common with the original. Gone are the brutish hillbillies. Gone is Dr. Terminus, the greedy charlatan. Gone are the musical numbers and the silly tone. Whereas established fairy tale films are expected to follow the same beats as their predecessors, Pete’s Dragon took the bare minimum of inspiration from the 1977 movie and made something new yet affectionate out of it.

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Young Pete (Oakes Fegley) is still an orphan, but the beginning actually shows the loss of his parents and how his first encounter with Elliot saves him, after which the boy grows up as a wild child with his protective dragon friend in the remote woods of the Pacific Northwest. In place of Helen Reddy’s beer cask-skipping lighthouse keeper, Bryce Dallas Howard is pleasantly down-to-earth as Forest Ranger Grace Meacham, and her father (Robert Redford) still tells tall tales of spotting an enormous dragon out in the woods. When Pete is discovered and falls into Grace’s charge, the same familial bonds and adoptive hopes develop as in the first film, only done better and with more subtlety. In lieu of the covetous swindler who wants Elliott for elixir ingredients, the villain role goes to Karl Urban as Gavin, the brother of Grace’s lumberjack boyfriend. His desire to capture a fantastical creature isn’t the most original element, but he’s more like Peter Coyote’s man with the keys from E.T. than an outright villain, and a good moment toward the end reaffirms that he does care more for his family than about fame and fortune.

The latest Pete’s Dragon is perhaps a bit too slow in spots, but it’s an appealing contrast to the frantic comedy of most family fare these days. Unlike the 1977 film, all of the human performances are natural and endearing, and Elliot himself is masterfully brought to life in all his fluffy green dragon glory, behaving like a giant dog at times, which is perhaps different from the whistling original but not at all in a negative way. And as a huge Lindsey Stirling fan, I have to mention her lovely and wistful song “Something Wild” that easily makes my End Credits Song Hall of Fame and was my #4 song of last year.

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Of all the live-action remakes Disney has created and planned, Pete’s Dragon seemed an unlikely contender, with a lackluster original with limited appeal. Yet even if it’s not the most entertaining entry, Pete’s Dragon may be the best live-action translation yet. While Cinderella and The Jungle Book did their sources justice, 2016’s Pete’s Dragon blows its predecessor out of the water, from the much more intimate change in tone to the uplifting final scene that offers a happy ending to Elliot as well as Pete. Notably distinct without the need to be edgy or revisionist, it’s a gentle remake that Disney would do well to learn from.

Best line from 1977 version:  (Merle Gogan) “Say, have you seen anything of a mean, fresh kid, about yea big? Answers to the name of Pete.”  (Hoagy) “Half of the kids here in this town answer to Pete. Other half don’t answer.”

Best line from 2016 version:  (Mr. Meacham) “There’s magic in the woods, if you know where to look for it.”


Rank for the 1977 version: Dishonorable Mention
Rank for the 2016 version: List Runner-Up


© 2017 S.G. Liput
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