I am old enough to feel like I should remember the original Pete’s Dragon (which was released in 1977). I know that I saw it as a kid but it definitely did not stick with me. Because of that, I would have had no expectations going into the 2016 version of Pete’s Dragon but for the very positive reviews it has been getting. The new Pete’s Dragon did not resonate with me to quite that degree, but it is a good family movie that I think kids will love. It also may make you wish you had a pet dragon.
Elliot the dragon is probably the best part of this movie and the reason I think kids will go head over heels for Pete’s Dragon. More dog than wild beast, he seems like the perfect companion if you’re stranded in the Pacific Northwest. Even if you’re only stranded metaphorically. Elliot can fly, he can turn invisible, and builds the best tree forts ever! What more could a kid ask for in a mythological friend?
The human characters in Pete’s Dragon are far less compelling. All of them are one dimensional, existing only to contribute whatever is needed to move the story along. Bryce Dallas Howard likes nature so she protects the dragon. BDH’s stepdaughter likes Pete so she helps. Karl Urban is BDH’s greedy and bored soon-to-be brother in law, who we know will learn a lesson by the end. Robert Redford is BDH’s father, the old guy who tells stories about the dragon and who fortunately can also drive an 18 wheeler. Wes Bentley is just kind of there because someone decided that BDH needed a fiance and the stepdaughter needed a father and Urban needed a brother.
I wanted more depth from these characters and maybe older kids will too. But ten-year-old me would not have cared one bit about character development when there’s a flying green dragon on display! A fantastic-looking, furry, CG dragon. The visuals in Pete’s Dragon are awesome, both when it comes to Elliot and when it comes to displaying the gorgeous forest/mountain vistas of the northern west coast. The combination of Elliot and the beautiful backdrops is more than enough to keep adults entertained, even with paper-thin characters at every turn.
Just don’t expect there to be a clear message. Lately, Disney (/Pixar) has been doing well at including big coherent themes in kids’s movies, from Inside Out to Zootopia to Finding Dory. There is no clear message here to be found. There are environmental and family threads sewn but no coherent payoff is ever delivered.
Still, that’s not so much a complaint against Pete’s Dragon as a reminder that Disney (/Pixar) has given us some classics in the last year. Pete’s Dragon does not quite measure up to that high standard but it is still a good family movie and moreover, a movie that this childless adult greatly preferred to its polar opposite counterprogramming, the joyless Sausage Party.
Pete’s Dragon gets a score of seven fuzzy dragons out of ten.