Sunday, August 21, 2016

Dragon Tales - A Review of Disney's Remake of Pete's Dragon

Disney's original Pete's Dragon means a lot to me. In 1977, when I was 3, it was the first movie my parents took me to see. Nearly 40 years later, I still remember walking through the theatre lobby, waiting in line for popcorn, getting seated and realizing that the movie had already started, but not caring because it was the scene where Pete and Elliot are romping through the apple orchard happy and free. I remember Jim Dale's Doctor Terminus and Red Buttons' Hoagy crooning their deliciously evil song "Every Little Piece", and Elliot going berserk in the boat house, and then saving the day by lighting the lighthouse lamp. It wasn't just my first trip to the movies, it was the story that hatched my life-long love of dragons, and, to some extent, fantasy and science fiction in general.

So I was very, very cautious a while ago when word came out that The Mouse was going to take another crack at this wonderful dragon tale. Sure, the original is a little corny in that classic Disney animated musical kind of way, and its early 1900s setting might be a little lost on an audience of modern kids (and many adults!), but it's also beautiful to look at and, at its heart, is a good story with a lot of heart. In general, as I've mentioned often before, I'm skeptical of remakes of movies that don't need to be remade. But I figured I had to give it a chance. It was going to be, after all, a movie with a dragon in it.

[From this point on, like any old map that warns "Here there be dragons", consider yourself warned: Here there be spoilers!]

This evening, my wife and I went to catch a showing of the new Pete's Dragon at the local bazillionplex, and, I have to say, I really enjoyed it!

In this version, Pete is orphaned in a car accident in the woods at the age of 5, and rescued by a lonely dragon who takes the child under his wing (pun intended). A few years later (this version is set in the early 1980s — almost, but not quite as alien to modern audiences as the Edwardian era of the original), Pete's discovered by a forest ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a bunch of loggers, and taken back to their nearby mill town, causing Elliot, the dragon, to begin a desperate search for the boy. The dragon is disheartened when he finally tracks Pete down and sees that the boy is happy with the humans who have taken him in. When Pete tries to introduce Elliot to his new family (which includes Grace's father, Meacham, played by Robert Redford), the dragon is captured by one of the loggers. Pete must then find a way to free Elliot, and the friends then face the challenge of making a new life in a world that won't let them stay together.

It's a sweet story. Pete and Elliot have some wonderful moments together, and Redford's account of his encounter with a dragon in the forest years before is, itself, magical.

The Weta special effects team has done a gorgeous job with Elliot, although he too (like the story itself) has been reconceptualized. In the old movie, Elliot was a tubby, green version of a Chinese dragon, rendered in classical Disney animation, with stunted wings and no barbels or chin beard, who, despite only vocalizing in grunts, croons, whistles, clicks, and growls, was clearly understood by the humans around him as though he was speaking English (likely due to some kind of telepathy). He was also able to turn invisible. The new Elliot retains the invisibility trick, but his wings are much larger, and his appearance is furry and like a canine-inspired western dragon, and there's no telepathy — humans discern his meaning from body language, the tone of his vocalizations, and the emotion in his eyes. The new, photoreal Elliot, armed with an array of sharp teeth, is also much more intimidating than his predecessor. A thoroughly different dragon, but this one will do nicely.

I also loved the cloudscapes in the background during the forest scenes at the beginning of the film, and in the mountains at the end. Admittedly, it could have been my eyes playing tricks, trying to find patterns where none actually exist, but I'm pretty sure that in several of those shots, some of the clouds looked like dragons. One cloud in the beginning when Elliot and Pete first soared really high looked a lot like the old Elliot. A trick of my mind, maybe, but this is a Disney film with a Weta special effects crew, and those teams have proven time and again over the years how deeply concerned they are with details. I suspect that what I thought I saw was actually there (cue Lampy/Mickey Rooney's "I swear I saw a dragon!" song from the original); that they have intentionally seeded the cloudscapes with outlines of dragons.

I also enjoyed the nod the special effects team made to the original, keeping Elliot's flying style as a kind of twisting bumble through the air (though his inability to land properly in the new version was a bit annoying).

It was also nice to see Elliot get to spend the rest of his life with a dragon family of his own at the end, rather than just kind of mosey off to wander the Earth alone, occasionally helping other people, like the dog in The Littlest Hobo (thought I was going to make a Pulp Fiction/Kung Fu reference, didn't ya?).

Where the new movie suffers is that it has a much weaker story and characterization than the original.

First, Grace, despite being kind and loving, is lacking in any real strength. She's a forest ranger and (as we see from her introductory scene) interested in protecting wildlife, but she does nothing but stand on the sidelines ineffectually wringing her hands when Elliot is captured. A wild creature, never before catalogued, in a forest she's tasked to protect, and she takes no preventative measures when it is taken down in an alarmingly brutal fashion and dragged off to be imprisoned in a dark mill warehouse in chains. Let's compare Grace to Nora (played by Helen Reddy), the lighthouse keeper's daughter, from the original, who takes in Pete and is every bit as ferocious as a dragon protecting its hoard when she defends Pete from his evil adopted parents, the Gogans. The Gogans try physical intimidation, and Nora threatens to pound them. They cite their adoption contract, claiming ownership of the boy, and she refuses to accept that it has any kind of authority and basically dares them to do anything. The new version of Pete's Dragon would have been so much better — and believable — if Grace had been more like Nora and immediately rounded on the loggers during the capture scene and threatened to bring down the full force of whatever animal protection laws (or relevant fish and game jurisdiction) that were in place in the 80s, maybe made an arrest if she had the authority, or made a phonecall afterwards to a well-funded and highly visible animal protection NGO like Greenpeace. Instead, Grace is too busy looking weepy.

And speaking of threats, a huge problem with this film is that there's no clearly-defined villain. In the original, we had both the Gogans and Dr Terminus. The Gogans were abusive and worked Pete like a slave, and probably would have eventually killed him one way or another if they'd succeeded in recapturing him. Terminus, the snake oil salesman, wanted to kill Elliot, cut him to pieces, and sell off "every little piece" to make "money, money, money by the pound!" These were all awful people who represented a real threat to our heroes. By contrast, the closest thing we have to a villain in the modern version is Gavin (played by Karl Urban), one of the owners of the logging/mill company, who is concerned for Pete's welfare, treats everyone else nicely enough, and just wants to capture Elliot (Meacham even confronts Gavin about capturing the dragon without really knowing what he wants to do with it). So Gavin's kind of a dick, but not remotely evil. Which completely puts out the fire of any kind of serious threat to Pete or Elliot. Sure, we know that if Gavin gets his way, Elliot's certainly not going to be enjoying his freedom in the forest, but there's no indication that his heart is going to be removed and "wrapped up in a ribbon with a string" like Terminus would have done. Sure, in the modern era, we like to see characters, even villains, more well-rounded to be believable; and yeah, I can see why Disney wouldn't want to make Gavin a classic bad guy because they clearly don't want to alienate loggers or mill workers or their families who could be in the paying audience (Disney's also obviously shying-away from making much of a statement about logging — especially 1980s-style logging — and its environmental impacts), but without an antagonist who's clearly on the wrong side of the moral compass (as opposed to Gavin's mere self-centred brashness), there isn't the same ability to generate tension, nor is there the moral payoff when the goodguys prevail. About the closest thing we get in this movie to a real badguy is the deer that causes the car accident in the beginning that kills Pete's parents. My theory is that this Bambi, lashing out in blind vengeance against any human he comes across to settle the score for the death of his mother. If there's any justice in the Disney world, hopefully Elliot ate him sometime later (look at the big green guy's canines: he's clearly enjoying venison and other game every couple of days) and saved a haunch to roast for his new friend's dinner.

The other major weakness in the film is that there are no big life-or-death stakes. As mentioned above, Elliot's imprisoned here with an uncertain future, but it's not a given that he's going to die, like Terminus' plan in the original. Pete loses his parents in the opening act, but that's just the set-up. The rest of the film doesn't create any impression that he's in danger. Life with Elliot is good. Life with Grace, Natalie, Jack and Meacham is also good. The prospect of being taken by Social Services is obviously not as good as life with Grace et al, but the story doesn't impune the foster system in any way (again, Disney's probably stepping carefully here so as not to offend anyone working in Social Services, or any of the many good foster parents or adoptive parents out there). So the prospect of losing Elliot is definitely sad, but in no way holds the same kind of horror that was in store for Pete in the original if the Gogans had their way. Also, there's no risk to anyone else in this modern version. The original upped the ante by having a ship — carrying Nora's long-lost fiance (who, if I remember, had been injured and afflicted with amnesia in some distant port until Elliot found him and cured him) among its crew —pushed by a storm towards the rocks near the town, and the lighthouse's lamp disabled by a wet wick. Elliot had to do more than just free himself and save Pete — he had to relight the lamp to save the sailors from dying and Nora from losing her fiancĂ© once and for all. The closest we get to a big save in the new version is Elliot rescuing Grace and her boyfriend Jack (in a really vague — and this is stretching it — kind of full circle nod back to the fatal car accident in the beginning), which doesn't have quite the same punch. It would have been better (and more symbolically appropriate) if he'd had to use his fire to create a firebreak to save the town from a forest fire or something — anything to make the stakes bigger than just one family.

But for all its failings, the new Pete's Dragon manages to soar, and I'd certainly watch it again.