Entire family: No (age 8 and older)
2016, 103 min., Color
Rated PG for action, peril and brief language
Aspect ratio: 2.39:1
Featured audio: DTS-HDMA 7.1
Bonus features: B
Includes: Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD
My family was never a fan of the 1977 animated/live-action Pete’s Dragon. They thought the dragon was too goofy, the songs were too cheesy, and the hillbilly sideplot featuring an abrasive Shelley Winters and her “sons” was downright annoying. In other words, if any Disney catalog title was ripe for a remake, it was this one.
Surprisingly, the 2016 Pete’s Dragon isn’t just a retelling of the same old story upgraded with a furry CGI dragon that looks as realistic as the deer and bear we see in the film. It’s a mash-up of the original film, E.T., Tarzan, The Jungle Book, How to Train Your Dragon, King Kong, Escape to Witch Mountain, The Emerald Forest, and the song “Puff, the Magic Dragon.” And while the film is rated PG, it’s our opinion that this version isn’t recommended for children under age eight.
For starters, the opening sequence, which I’ve nicknamed “Bambi’s revenge,” could traumatize a whole new generation of Disney children. This time it’s not a hunter who kills a deer and orphans a fawn; it’s a deer that causes a car to flip, killing Pete’s parents and leaving the youngster an orphan alone in the woods at night, surrounded by ravenous wolves. But, ta-da, it’s a dragon to the rescue! Fast-forward six years and Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a wild child who gets his own Jane moment when a little girl named Natalie (Oona Laurence) surveys the forest with her father. Jack (Wes Bentley) owns a lumber mill and employs people like his brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), who pay no attention to his instructions to log responsibly. They’re cutting deeper into the forest than they were authorized and getting dangerously close to the cave/tree that Pete and Elliot call home.
Disney includes a few wink-wink moments, among them the detail that the car crash occurred in 1977 (the year the first Pete’s Dragon was made), and an escape scene later in the film depicting a formation that looks amazingly like Witch Mountain from that Disney film series—and it’s easy to make that association when Robert Redford takes on the Eddie Albert role of helping the children (and in this case the dragon, too) escape the exploiters and authorities who are hot on their trail. Bryce Dallas Howard stars as his daughter, a park ranger who, like the others, doesn’t exactly believe that her father had a magical encounter with the legendary Millhaven Dragon many years ago—a detail that will remind people of Disney’s Darby O’Gill and the Little People as well. As with other mash-up moments, you smile in recognition, but if you know all the allusions and recycled plot elements it also takes away from the newness of the narrative.
What Pete’s Dragon lacks in originality it makes up for in visual and special effects. Elliot looks amazing—real enough to pet—and as good as the flight sequences are, it’s the scenes where Elliot turns invisible or camouflaged that merit the most applause. Capture and revenge scenes are rendered flawlessly and contribute to the tension, making this an action-adventure rather than the comedy-musical we got back in 1977. But tonally there are sad and serious scenes and more than a few anxious moments of peril—too many, perhaps, for children under eight—despite an ending that’s the equivalent of a cinematic smiley face. It’s powerfully sad, for example, when Elliot is captured, and that tone of sadness and urgency prevails, rather than something lighter. That said, Pete’s Dragon is a vast improvement over the 1977 animated/live-action version, especially for a generation geared toward impressive CGI effects and high-stakes action that all but demands the kind of wonderful visual clarity we get on this Blu-ray presentation. Right now Pete’s Dragon version 2016 is second-tier Disney, but I suspect it will be viewed as an underrated film as time goes by.
Language: “Hell” is about it; pretty squeaky clean, otherwise
Violence: An opening car crash, wolf attack, fire-breathing dragon attack against pursuing cars, and Elliot’s capture by armed men
Adult situations: Nothing characteristically adult, but moments of loss and peril are traumatic
Takeaway: Disney live-action remakes have come a long way since 101 Dalmatians