Depending on who you ask, the summer movie season in 2016 has either been par for the course as far as this time of year goes, or just a series of colossal disappointments with one or two bright spots. My guess is that people in the latter camp would probably only be paying close attention to this year’s blockbuster outings, while mostly ignoring anything that never made it to the multiplexes. But for anyone willing to pay attention to things other than the latest pieces of nerd garbage, there’s been quite a few worthwhile offerings from the indie/foreign language sections of summer film, including but not limited to: Love & Friendship, The Neon Demon, Les Innocentes, Captain Fantastic, and many more.
But it’d be truly hard to deny that as far as the larger scaled mainstream offerings go, yes it has been a rather dry summer in that department. Apart from Captain America: Civil War and maybe Star Trek: Beyond (which I was personally mixed to positive towards) there haven’t been too many noteworthy offerings of spectacle-driven escapism. But in the final weeks of summer at the box office, here comes Disney once again to save the day, with a pleasantly surprising remake of one of their more obscure films, Pete’s Dragon, a remake that has much better reasons to exist – from an artistic standpoint at least – than something more beloved like Cinderella or the upcoming live action re-imagining of Beauty and the Beast (yes, because there was *so much* left to improve upon from the animated version…).
Plot-wise, aside from central idea of a boy living alone in the woods with his friendly dragon companion, the two versions of Pete’s Dragon don’t have a whole lot in common, and this one is all the better for it. Instead, this one has more in common with last year’s awards darling Room than it does the original it’s adapted from. The central conceit here is still that a young boy is on his own with a dragon, but this version places a lot more emphasis on the titular Pete getting reacquainted with the outside world after six years of living essentially on his own in the woods. The way that it takes the bare bones elements of the original and updates them into a brand new story should be the go-to template for every remake that comes out these days, and while many don’t seem to be willing to take that sort of chance, Pete’s Dragon benefits greatly from choosing to go in a whole new direction with its premise and characters.
One significant aspect of Pete’s Dragon that sets is apart from most modern day family entertainment is the tone. Compared to most other media current aimed at younger audiences these days, both in live action and animated form, this film takes a refreshingly slower and more understated approach to the subject matter. It isn’t in a hurry to get to the next comical and over-the-top setpiece or chase sequence. The atmosphere established herein is more comforting and soulful than what children these days are probably used to these days – not unlike the last Disney live action effort, Steven Spielberg’s The BFG.
In that respect, it functions less as a straight-up remake of the original film, and more like a live action Studio Ghibli outing, with its earnest, light-hearted tone that’s eventually interrupted by some rousing, well-earned emotional beats towards the final act. It never panders directly to its target audience, nor does it inappropriately wink and nod to all the parents in the theater; it simply maintains a consistent tonality throughout the whole thing. Coupled with all around solid performances from the cast, be it from veterans like Robert Redford to newer child actors like Oakes Fegley, and you’ve got yourself one of the better live action Disney flicks from the past couple of years.
Alas, while there’s a lot that Pete’s Dragon does right and/or very well, a few missteps here and there are usually inevitable for a production of this magnitude from a studio as gigantic as Disney, so while the film is very good for what it’s trying to be, it isn’t perfect. The first and foremost of these problems comes in the form of a pretty recently adopted cliche in 21st century family films, and it’s the problem of giving any animal character the basic traits and characteristics of a dog; think Bullseye in the Toy Story films or fellow dragon Toothless in How to Train Your Dragon. It’s not a fatal flaw in this film and for the most part it works ok, especially considering Elliot’s more cutesy and friendly character design. But it still merits mentioning that this otherwise fresh and original children’s tale still falls back on such a common and noticeable Hollywood cliche.
Pete’s Dragon is a real treat, and an exemplary piece of modern family entertainment. The experience of watching this film so soon after a confused mess like Suicide Squad is like the equivalent of taking a much needed antacid pill after a serious bout of heartburn. It takes one of Disney’s lesser known (and lesser quality) classic era efforts and breathes fresh life into it.
The fact that this superior remake is arriving in theaters just one week before the remake of Ben-Hur (a universally beloved, Oscar winning epic that still holds up now-a-days) is equal parts amusing and sadly telling of the current state of remake culture still rampant in Hollywood these days. Let’s just hope in the future more are of the caliber of this one; and if this summer’s parade of lackluster, disappointing blockbusters has you down in the dumps, give Pete’s Dragon one last shot to lighten your summer movie-going season.