If we didn’t live in an age where anything with the least amount of brand recognition gets greenlit for an adaptation or a remake, Pete’s Dragon would seem like a strange choice to reimagine for a modern audience. The original is a relatively obscure live-action/animation hybrid film from 1977, most notable for its titular character who could conveniently turn invisible in order to save Disney the expense of having to animate him, so to revive the brand for a modern CG spectacle is pretty bizarre, especially when one considers that the new film and the old share almost no similarities beyond some names and the fact that there is a dragon. Considering that the 1977 film is among the less interesting works of Disney’s expansive canon, one might think that the remake could only fare better. Well, you’d be wrong.
Set in the 1980s Pacific Northwest—presumably to explain why a dragon wouldn’t be detected via satellite or with any number of modern technologies—a five-year-old boy named Pete finds himself lost in the woods after his parents die in a car crash. There he meets a dragon whom he names Elliott, and the two live together in the woods for six years. The first act consists mostly of Pete and Elliott playing with one another in the woods for such a long stretch that it begs the question of when exactly the film’s conflict is going to kick into gear.
A token attempt is given to establishing the adult human cast, but so many of the characters are devoid of personality that it’s difficult to relate to or care about them. Wes Bentley and Karl Urban play brothers who work at a lumber mill, but their unshaven faces and propensity toward wearing flannel make them visually similar, and neither is well-established for the respective supporting hero and villain roles they are set to play. Robert Redford makes an appearance for an establishing scene, then promptly disappears until the end of Act Two and doesn’t carry much depth to him either. The best of the bunch is Bryce Dallas Howard as a park ranger who functions as a maternal lure for Pete, but that’s much more a testament to her acting ability than it is the material she has to work with.
When the second act seems to finally kick into gear, as Pete is discovered by civilization and separated from Elliott, the film’s already slow forward momentum grinds to a halt, as the plot begins to revolve entirely around the inaction of its characters. Pete rediscovers what it means to have a human family as Elliott attempts to track him down, but none of it feels compelling. The conclusion is already predetermined and the characters aren’t fun to watch, so the deliberately slow pacing becomes tedious. This isn’t helped by the film’s constant abuse of its saccharine hipster aesthetic, built upon equal parts glassy-eyed nostalgia and montages accompanied by plaintively whining acoustic guitar tracks.
By the time the third act rolls around and the conflict between the humans, Pete, and Elliott comes to a head, it hardly seems to matter that the climax works on a technically impressive level. The best parts of the film are when the digitally-created Elliott is allowed to do something—whether he’s flying, breathing fire, or acting as Elliott’s trusted sidekick. It’s such a shame then that the titular character is sidelined in his own film for a banal telling of a predictable story. Even at a scant 102 minutes, the film is an exhausting slog, tempered only by scarce moments of well-executed comic relief and decent action. The kids will probably like the fantasy of having their own dragon, but parents should be prepared for a complete lack of emotional investment. This is one remake that is just as pointless as it seems.