Title: Pete's Dragon
Describe This Movie In One Simpsons Quote:
Kent Brockman: Homer, organized labor has been called a "lumbering dinosaur"...
Kent Brockman: My...director's telling me not to talk to you anymore.
Rating Using Random Objects Relevant To The Film: Two-and-a-half Black Knights out of five.
Brief Plot Synopsis: Orphaned boy befriends dragon, eschews hair conditioner.
Tagline: "Some secrets are too big to keep."
Better Tagline: "Look into the eye of the Dragon and...daawwwwww."
Not So Brief Plot Synopsis: It’s just like the story of Romulus and Remus, except there’s only one kid, and a dragon instead of a wolf. Also, Pete (Oakes Fegley) doesn’t found a city; he’s just...found one day by Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), a Ranger whose father (Robert Redford) amuses local kids with stories about how he met a dragon once. So, things are looking up! Pete can get vaccinations and Pop-Tarts and make friends with Natalie (Oona Laurence), the daughter of Grace’s boyfriend (Wes Bentley), right? Not so fast, because Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban) has found out about Elliott and decides he wants to get in on that sweet dragon bounty money, which doesn’t actually exist.
"Critical" Analysis: Movies have a singular ability to influence our emotions. The best ones do it subtly, so that we’re not even aware we’ve been manipulated until our heart swells at a key moment, or the score kicks in as the lovers are reunited or the hero returns home and we find ourselves furiously trying to hide your tears from your junior year girlfriend. Theoretically.
Pete’s Dragon takes the opposite approach. It’s a movie that swings for the sentimental fences every time, with performers (Howard especially) either constantly gaping in astonishment or on the verge of tears. Every musical cue feels designed to generate maximum feels, while Daniel Hart’s score might as well be the product of an algorithm designed by scienticians to yank the maximum number of heartstrings allowed by federal regulation.
It’s also a deeply nostalgic film, which isn’t an unconscious choice. Director David Lowery sets the movie in 1982 (according to the Internet; the date is never specified in the film), recalling earnest kids’ movies of that era like E.T. Unfortunately, Lowery is unaware of the "less is more" concept (or actively ignores it). Most movies featuring large, mythical beasts do their best to hold the full reveal back until later in the movie, whether for dramatic reasons (Godzilla, Jurassic Park) or just to hide uncertain F/X (Jaws). In Pete’s Dragon, we meet Elliott before the credits even roll, a decision that effectively sets the mystery level to "zilch."
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This is a shame, because there’s the core of a good movie here. The acting is generally above par, and in a summer blockbuster season that’s seen no end of threatened global catastrophes, the story is comparatively low stakes. It also sticks close to the venerable Disney narrative of man exploiting nature for profit, which is pretty rich considering Uncle Walt’s frozen corpse would probably lunge from its platinum-lined crypt to lead the bidding if a real dragon ever turned up. Even Karl Urban’s bad guy is more oaf than villain, eventually seeing the error of his ways.
And as earnestly sincere as they are, the performances are generally acceptable. Fegley and Laurence are especially believable, and Urban clearly relishes getting the chance to twirl his metaphorical mustache. Redford, on the other hand, seems confused. Specifically, he looks like a guy who just woke up and was told he'd be playing the Mickey Rooney role in a Pete's Dragon remake.
Lowery also makes the wise choice to keep the green screen to a minimum, with Elliott as the only real CGI element. Of course, Elliott is less reminiscent of a "dragon" than he is a Cane Corso with wings. Basically, he's a big green dog. That breathes fire. Your cat will love him.
Pete’s Dragon means well, but ultimately lays the schmaltz on way too thick. It’s a lesson Pete himself will eventually have to learn: Nobody likes it when you come on too strong.