BY ROGER THOMAS
I must confess that I have never seen the original “Pete’s Dragon.”
That film came out in 1977 and I was 14 years old and way too cool to go see a film about an animated dragon. If you are not familiar with the original, look it up. The dragon is literally a cartoon. Besides, a few months before “Pete’s Dragon” premiered in a theater near me, I had been introduced to a galaxy far, far away with “Star Wars.”
With that said, I went into the new film with no expectations and very little knowledge of the source material.
First, the dragon looks great. Of course, nearly 40 years later, visuals effects have progressed in numerous ways. The dragon, named Elliot, looks different than any dragon I could have imagined, and certainly looks different than the animated one from the original film. Certainly, the appearance of the dragon is one of the greatest strengths of the film.
Second, the film is filled with beautiful settings. Elliot and Pete live in a lush forest that I would love to visit. Throughout the film, there are wonderful shots of nature, especially when Elliot and Pete are flying. There is also a grand final shot that offers a glimpse of another place in our world that I would like to visit. Visually, the film is outstanding.
There are also some fine performances. Most of the film rests on the shoulders of young Oakes Fegley as Pete. The audience has to believe he is interacting with a dragon. Actually, they have to believe he has a friend who is a dragon.
Oakes pulls it off in every scene. There are plenty of moments with Elliot the Dragon. There are also other scenes where he interacts with people and times when he faces great obstacles. The scene with the school bus is probably the best. Oakes succeeds throughout the production.
Robert Redford and Bryce Dallas Howard also stand out among the cast. I did find myself wondering why Redford chose to be a part of this production. Perhaps he wanted to do something for the children in his life.
The film also offers a climax that is spectacular and moving. I applaud the cast and crew for those moments, which were the best in the film.
With all that said, I cannot fully recommend “Pete’s Dragon.” For me, it felt too much like it was made in 1977. Yes, the effects could not have been done then, but I have already praised the visuals. The problem is it oozes sweetness yet never offers the slightest edge. Even the villains are not menacing.
From the very beginning shots, I knew, and I suspect everyone else in the theater did as well, exactly where the film was going. That is true for a lot of films, but if the plot is predicable, then there has to something else that makes the film stand out.
I went to a lot of Disney films when I was growing up. I cut my critic’s teeth on Disney nearly 50 years ago. I rarely saw a film I did not like. I always enjoyed the happy endings when all was right in the world.
I am not sure what I would have added to “Pete’s Dragon,” I just know I needed for it to have something. The beginning, which explains why Pete was in the forest with a dragon, was tremendous. The climax was spectacular. The final shot in the film was inspired.
I just wish, somewhere in the middle, the filmmakers would have surprised me.
Roger Thomas is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association. He reviews films for The Stanly News & Press.