Disney's on a roll with these adaptations of their former animated properties, and if the box office receipts keep coming in, I don't see any reason why they'll stop. Maleficent managed to be a box office bonanza despite its poor quality, Cinderella did quite well, and of course, Jon Favreau's vivid CGI depiction of The Jungle Book grossed nearly $1 billion dollars worldwide. David Lowery's re-imagining of the classic live-action/animation hybrid Pete's Dragon is coming in with significantly lower expectations with a budget of only $65 million, which means that even if it continues its modest box office success, it'll be fine. For me, Pete's Dragon looked like the first film in this new Disney trend that I could really connect with and enjoy. The trailers carried a distinctly Spielbergian vibe, and in recent weeks, buzz had grown around the film as critics embraced Lowery's sweet and nostalgic vision. If there was one that I would love, I figured that this would be it.
Sadly, I walked away disappointed once again. But the odd part is that Pete's Dragon is everything that has been advertised- it's gentle, sweet, and good-natured, with a kind, lovable dragon at the center of the emotional story. Lowery hits the right notes to make the audience cry, but in a strange way, I felt that he never earned those tears. The movie is aggressively slight, with underdeveloped characters across the board, a half-hearted 1980s setting, and musical cues that feel like a cross between John Williams and a mumblecore indie rock band. Something about Pete's Dragon just felt off to me and despite some moments of wonder and a steady directorial hand, I was never all that engaged by this classic tale of a boy and his dragon.
When he's just a young boy, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is on a vacation with his parents in the Pacific Northwest. Unfortunately, when a deer runs out in front of their car, Pete's parents are killed, leaving the young boy alone in the wilderness. With no food, shelter, or anyone to protect him, things aren't looking good for Pete- especially with wolves and bears nearby. But then, something strange happens. A dragon, who Pete later names Elliot, befriends him and becomes his protector and guardian. Cut to nearly half a decade later, and Pete and Elliot are still living in harmony in the forest. Life is good and free until human interference begins to cut deeper and deeper into their land. A logging company led by Jack (Wes Bentley) and Gavin (Karl Urban) is cutting down trees like it's nobody's business, much to the disappointment of Jack's girlfriend, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who doubles as a park ranger.
Legends of a dragon in the forest have always been spread by Meacham (Robert Redford), Grace's father. Although his claims are totally unsubstantiated, it's still considered to be an essential piece of their culture. So when Grace finds Pete in the woods, and the young boy begins referring to his large, magical green friend in the wood, people take notice. But once Gavin finds out, things start to get a little bit hectic. The amoral businessman sees Elliot as a dangerous creature, and whose only future is to be a zoo animal (there's a little bit of King Kong here). As the human world tries to pull Pete away from Elliot, and with danger at every turn, they'll need the help of Grace, Meacham, and Jack's daughter (Oona Laurence) to save the day.
Like The BFG before it (the closest comparison to this film in the summer season), Pete's Dragon is very, very difficult to dislike entirely. Just like Steven Spielberg's warm and charming Roald Dahl adaptation, director David Lowery injects a lot of whimsy, emotion, and heart into this film. Even as someone who didn't find the movie as a whole to be all that good, the ending still hits pretty hard. But it's endlessly slight, constantly meandering, and in the end, more than a little tedious. Pete's Dragon and The BFG are films that keep hitting certain people in a spot of vulnerability, because they feel like a callback to the kind of movies that Hollywood "just doesn't make anymore." And that's fine, I guess. I just don't understand the appeal of a movie where the character development is thin, the plot is one-note, and the pace is sluggish.
Because those are all problems that Pete's Dragon runs into very quickly. On the surface, this movie is designed to elicit feelings of nostalgia and happiness. The comparisons to E.T. and The Iron Giant are valid (although I think I might have a heart attack if anybody considered them to be close in quality), and the 1980's setting feels like another extra layer to give you the sensation that this is a film from a lost era. But if you look under the surface at all, you won't find a whole lot. Where some found a refreshing simplicity, I found the movie's fatal flaw. Simply put, you just don't get to know much about Pete and Elliot's relationship. You see the young boy get rescued at the start of the movie, you see a few scenes of the two together in the first act, and that's about it. In the films that Pete's Dragon takes inspiration from, much of the runtime is devoted to the relationship between the principal characters. That's a cue that Pete's Dragon never takes. It's almost like they felt like the emotional sentimentality was strong enough that they didn't need to earn anything.
This problem extends to pretty much the entire cast of characters. Most of them could be defined by one adjective or description- there are no three-dimensional characters in this film. The performances aren't especially bad or lackluster, these actors just don't have much to work with. Despite being just as flat as the rest of them (his defining trait is that he saw a dragon a long time ago), I actually thought that Robert Redford was the standout here. He has an excellent monologue, and I even enjoyed his role in some of the action beats. Bryce Dallas Howard's Grace is a tougher nut to crack, because I would argue that she doesn't even have a trait that could be applied to the actual narrative of the film. Her motivation for being so nice to Pete and Elliot is.........minor, at best. She just doesn't have a lot to do, even with a few little things thrown around during the film.
Same goes for Wes Bentley's Jack, who barely qualifies as a character beyond the fact that he's a spineless wimp who won't stand up to his brother. That's his character. There's nothing else. No other reason to care if he lives or dies. And speaking of Gavin, he's a brilliantly one-note villain. He's portrayed as an evil logger from the beginning, and it's such a cliched bit that I rolled my eyes as Gavin emerged as the main antagonist of the film. Couldn't the screenwriters have given him some reason to hate Elliot? Or at least not make him such an unlikable jerk earlier in the movie? Did it really have to go this way? And finally, I'll just go ahead and say this- I didn't care about Pete that much. He's defined by his braveness, and yet, we only see this one time during the movie. And even though this is gonna sound mean, I must admit that I wasn't all that impressed by Oakes Fegley either. In a genre that thrives on character work, Pete's Dragon drops the ball big time.
Maybe I'm just too cynical for my own good, but for me, Pete's Dragon is a cute, occasionally whimsical journey without any real substance. It feels like I'm being really mean to this movie that I ultimately thought was okay, but this was a huge disappointment. I had been on board with this film as a quasi-Spielbergian adventure ever since I saw the first trailer, and I was enormously let down by how little I enjoyed this one. But that's just how it goes sometimes. Kids will probably have a decent time, some adults will be moved, and everybody else will be bored. David Lowery is definitely a director with a certain degree of talent, and with the amount of acclaim that this film received, he'll have a wide range of projects to pick from. I have no doubt that one of those movies will be great, but his attempt at folksy Spielberg falls well short of the mark.
THE FINAL GRADE: C+ (6/10)
Image Credits: Coming Soon, Joblo