Disney’s new “Pete’s Dragon” is a refreshing throwback to a nicely slow-paced, warm-hearted family film – and we’re not talking about the original version of this movie.
The 3D presented in RealD theaters is of disappointingly but typical minimal impact except in close-ups and a couple of cliff-edge scenes. Unfortunately, the 3D causes a distraction in several scenes of forest trees that are blurred by seeming double-vision.
The presumed pre-teen audience should enjoy the fantastical element that they likely enjoyed in “How to Train Your Dragon” as well as the familiar Disney kid profile of an orphan boy, this one nearly identical to the Mowgli of “The Jungle Book.”
In this case, 10 year-old Pete is adopted and raised in a forest by a sweet and cuddly green dragon who takes Pete under its wings (literally) immediately following a car accident that takes the lives of his parents (a pretty tough opening couple of minutes as these Disney filmmakers make the unusual choice of actually showing how the tragedy that leaves the boy an orphan). The two of them live alone deep in the forest for six years.
Grandparents who remember the original “Pete’s Dragon” of 1977 will find almost nothing familiar here (gratefully in my case, but no doubt disappointingly for others). The only similarities are an orphan boy called Pete and his dragon friend called Elliot, which has the capability of becoming invisible at will.
This is no longer a musical and is a half-hour shorter than the bloated 2-hours-plus original (again, thank goodness we don’t have to suffer through those 11 interminable songs and forgettable dance numbers).
In the new film, Elliot has the soft, long-hair fur of Sulley in “Monsters Inc.” His face, particularly his lower jaw, resembles Disney’s Simba the lion, while he carries himself and embodies the personality and vocal mumblings of The Jetsons’ dog Astro.
Nonetheless, he’s of monstrous proportions, meaning star Bryce Dallas Howard is once again acting alongside a prehistoric creature as she did so well in “Jurassic World.” Howard is fine here as a forest ranger presumably in the Pacific Northwest in the 1970s (judging by the pick-up trucks and push-button land-line phones). She considers her father (interesting casting of Robert Redford) a bit of an eccentric since he insists on always retelling everyone about spotting a green dragon in the forest many years ago. She also has a rather spineless husband who has a logging business which employs his overly-ambitious and rule-breaking brother.
Of course, it’s this brother who blows the cover of Elliot and tries to capture him for his own mercenary purposes.
And of course, being a Disney family film, it all works out wonderfully for a predictable and reasonably satisfying happy ending.
While the original was marginally popular at the time, that was a pre-cable world and pre-Nickelodeon time when Disney was about the only choice for kids and family fare. Despite Disney being in the midst of its 20-year fallow period between the death of Walt Disney in 1966 and the arrival of studio saviors Michael Eisner and Jeffrey Katzenberg in the mid-1980s, even very broad and silly family comedies like “Hot Lead and Cold Feet,” “The Apple Dumpling Gang” and formulaic sequels to mediocre movies like “Escape to Witch Mountain” drew lines of station wagons filled with kids to drive-in theaters.
Still, the $36 million gross of the 1977 “Pete’s Dragon,” plus another $4 million for a 1984 re-release, according to IMDB.com, was 30% less than “The Love Bug” nine years earlier and doesn’t even rank the movie among Disney’s top 250 releases of all-time, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com.
The original “Pete’s Dragon was yet another effort to squeeze every penny out of the fast-declining fascination with the blending of live-action with animation that was so successful in “Mary Poppins” in 1964 but lost its luster with “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” in 1971.”
Disney’s happy-go-lucky musicals were also on a rapid descent and Excepting the Oscar-nominated “Candle on the Water,” the terrible soundtrack for “Pete’s Dragon” (there are three musical numbers in the first 15-minutes) put the nail in the coffin for Disney musicals that remained nailed shut until the 1990s. It didn’t help that some of the songs were performed by fading stars who were never known primarily for their singing, such as Shelley Winters, Red Buttons and Mickey Rooney.
Then there was the casting of pop recording artist Helen Reddy (“I Am Woman”). But her inexperience and lack of acting skills were only one of the many major flaws with the movie that is so poorly written, directed and produced and over-acted that it is even more painful to watch now than it was in theaters back then.
Best to stick to the mildly charming new “Pete’s Dragon.”
— By Scott Hettrick