When first released in 1977, Pete’s Dragon gained mixed reviews from critics, but became a much-loved film for many due to its endearing central characters: the orphan Pete, and his dragon, Elliott. The musical film is a mix of live action and animation, and tells the story of Pete escaping his abusive foster family and living side by side with Elliott, who only appears to those who need him.
Elliott has the ability to make himself invisible, which comes in handy when he doesn’t want to be discovered, but also makes for trouble as the unassuming residents of the small fishing village, Passamaquoddy, assume it is Pete causing mischief around the place. Eventually, Elliott is discovered by Lampie, the old lighthouse keeper, but the villagers dismiss him as a drunkard. Lampie’s daughter, Nora, offers Pete food and shelter at the lighthouse and he accepts. A traveling showman offers Pete money for Elliott but he refuses, saying he’s not his to sell. After the showman tries to capture Elliott a storm hits the port, and Elliott then reveals himself when he lights the lighthouse lamp, thereby saving Nora’s fiancé, who had been missing at sea. The film ends with Pete making the lighthouse his permanent home, and Elliott going on to help someone else.
The storyline is heart-warming, but the film hasn’t aged well, making it ripe for a remake. Disney has enjoyed mixed success with its remakes, reimaginings, or retellings, and it’s often hard to figure out which movie falls into which category, but there’s no mistaking that director David Lowery’s new take on Pete’s Dragon is a total remake, and a very good one at that. The basic premise is still the same, but this time around, we are given more of Pete’s backstory in the form of an opening scene, set when he is five. Going on an adventure with his parents, Pete sits in the back of the car, trying to read a story book, when the car swerves to avoid a deer. Then Pete is alone in the woods, his parents obviously dead in the wrecked car, and wolves are descending. That is when Elliott first appears.
The setting has changed this time, too, from a fishing village to the logging town on Millhaven on the outskirts of a large forest in the Pacific Northwest. The time setting is never clearly defined, but it is somewhere in the early eighties, one would guess. Location and era are the first of many differences, with others including replacing the lighthouse keeper and his daughter with Mr. Meecham (Robert Redford) and his Park Ranger daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard). Mr. Meecham narrates the opening and closing of the movie, and delights in telling the local kids stories of the dragon in the woods, whom no one believes is real.
Of course, he is real, and Elliott and Pete (Oakes Fegley) are living happily side by side, until Pete discovers a group of lumberjacks preparing to tear down part of the forest. He is discovered by a girl named Natalie, and when she tries to climb a tree after him, she falls and hurts herself. She is then found by her dad, Jack (Wes Bentley), and her soon to be step mom, Grace. Her uncle, Gavin (Karl Urban) goes in search of Elliott, while Pete is taken to the town for hospital treatment. Though Pete tries to escape several times, Jack and Grace are intent on trying to give him a home, and he eventually takes Grace, Natalie, and Mr. Meecham to see Elliott in the forest. From there, the plot continues to diverge from that of the original movie.
Lowery’s version of Pete’s Dragon is such a totally different take on the movie that it’s really a different film entirely, but for all the many differences, including the fact that this one is not musical, there are still many similarities. In both films, the characterization of Elliott is wonderful; though the 1977 animation was clumpy and unrefined, the heart of the character was still there, and the 2016 film delivers nothing short of a spectacularly realistic dragon: a very real, very tangible beast that you feel you should be able to reach out and touch. His love and affection for Pete is clear, perhaps even more so this time around, as he openly hugs Pete close several times, and he seems to possess a depth of character that few CGI characters have achieved before; he is full of wisdom, kindness, mischief, love, and heart.
The character of Pete is different, however. Whereas in the original he was young cheeky chappie who showed no fear of the townsfolk and no worries about the prospect of going to live at the lighthouse, Fegley’s portrayal is that of a much more sombre and reflective child. After living in the wild for six years, Pete has an understandable wariness and fear of humans that comes through clearly, thanks to some excellent acting by Fegley, who really is a triumph in the film. The deep bond between the two central characters makes for an incredibly emotional ending in both movies, but even more so in Lowery’s version thanks to the CG animation creating a more convincing illusion of Pete and Elliot actually interacting.
Pete’s Dragon 1977 remains a classic romp that is definitely is of its time. Family films back then followed an almost set formula, which consisted of goofy villains, overly bright and cheery central characters, a few cheesy songs and a saccharine ending. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie…. just that it could be a whole lot better. By contrast, Pete’s Dragon 2016 is a much more reflective, introspective and softer film. Yes, there is mild threat from Gavin and the lumberjack yard, but overall the movie manages to focus almost entirely on Pete, and the relationships he has with Elliott, Grace, and Natalie.
Overall, the remake of Pete’s Dragon is a vastly superior movie, a tender and emotive family film that will no doubt stand the test of time a whole lot better than its predecessor, but it’s worth remembering that the movie wouldn’t have come about at all were it not for the 1977 version. The central characters were well-thought out the first time around, and though their impact is somewhat lost in the muddle of the movie, this time around they are given the chance to shine – and they really do.
Pete’s Dragon is in theaters now.