67. Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Here’s a secret: I’ve never been crazy about Disney’s original Pete’s Dragon.  Really, it was only because of Mickey Rooney’s hammy performance.  Even as a kid, I thought he was pretty awful in that movie.  I hated his performance so much that I couldn’t enjoy the rest of the film.  So, finally, I have myself a Mickey-Rooney-free Pete’s Dragon!  To those unimaginative folk out there who like to spew clichés about how “there’s no reason” to remake films, I’ve just illustrated how untrue and short-sighted that statement really is.

 Anyway, I haven’t seen that original film since I was a little kid so I remember virtually nothing about the story or characters.  Thus, this won’t be anything approaching a contrast/comparison piece.  This 2016 version might as well have been completely original to me.

Or at least, that should have been the idea.  But even without remembering the 1977 version, I can’t in good conscience call 2016’s Pete’s Dragon “original”.  I was really hoping for something outside the box with regards to the narrative but instead, Pete’s Dragon serves up the predictable retread of themes frequently addressed by Frankenstein, King Kong, and 54 years of Hulk stories.  The themes aren’t bad or even poorly executed.  I just find it lazy.

It doesn’t end there, unfortunately.  We also get recycled gags (including a very memorable one from Jurassic Park that Pete’s Dragon actually uses twice), one-liners, and character archetypes.  The only aspect of the film that stands out to me as being something I wouldn’t have expected is the fur on Elliott the dragon.  And that’s hardly enough to make up the difference.

In truth, it’s not a “bad” movie, per se.  But the entire production just feels downplayed and . . . “muted” is the word, maybe?  Everything.  Visually, sonically, thematically, it’s as if director David Lowery wants the film to have as little impact as possible.

Lowery also perpetrates the filmmaking technique that has become my own personal pet peeve; a large chunk of the story is told and not shown.  Film is a visual medium.  Audiences need to actually see the important parts of the story.  The entire genesis of the relationship between Pete and Elliott is glossed over within the first few minutes with a “Six years later . . .” caption.  Any emotional impact that the film – particularly its climax – would and could have is almost totally nullified by this decision.  We are supposed to believe that there’s a special bond between Pete and Elliott, not because we actually see it develop, but because the filmmakers just tell us that there is.  It doesn’t work that way.  There’s no history for us to share with them or to reflect upon.  We witness no defining moments that convincingly illustrate how close they are or why.  Lowery is an inexperienced filmmaker and it really shows.  But Disney knows these things and should have stepped in to help out, a bit.

If there is any slight moment of true emotion in the film, it’s entirely due to the sheer will of Bryce Dallas Howard (Grace).  She doesn’t have a whole lot of screen time, and when she has some, she isn’t asked to do a whole lot, but when she’s finally given a moment, she doesn’t waste it.  Really, nobody is given much to do.  In fact, only two or three things even happen over the course of the film.  Robert Redford (Meacham) comes across as perfectly natural and comfortable but he mostly just stands around and tries to convince people he isn’t crazy (another movie cliché that Pete’s Dragon doesn’t bother avoiding).  Wes Bentley (Jack) is as wooden as ever.  And Karl Urban’s Gavin is basically a jerk version of Karl Urban.  Nobody is required to push themselves.

And that applies to virtually every department, not just the cast.  It’s about as easygoing a film as I’ve ever seen, casually strolling from scene to scene, being quiet enough to not wake the kids that have fallen asleep in the audience, as one sits there in the hope that it’s building to something fresh and unique.  Nope.  Even when there’s an apparent attempt at constructing a scene featuring something eventful and exciting, it plays out in the most obvious and predictable of ways.  I just kept hoping for something more.

Pete’s Dragon is the very epitome of mediocre.  It’s competently made from a technical standpoint but from a creative standpoint, it’s a greatest hits collection from a cavalcade of films and television shows that you’ve seen before who not only did these things first, but also did them better.

My suggestion: if you see only one movie, this weekend, see Kubo and the Two Strings.  If you see two movies, this weekend, see Kubo and the Two Strings twice.

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