It’s hard to figure out the intended audience for Pete’s Dragon.
Summer is always marked by the release of lots of kids’ movies, and the latest to arrive in St. Louis is Pete’s Dragon, a remake of a 1977 Disney musical film of the same name. The story is actually fairly different between the two films, but the heart of each is the same: the relationship between a lonely boy and his dragon. As a fantasy premise, that’s perfectly fine, but the 2016 film’s hopeless mishmash of, among other things, The Jungle Book, Tarzan, E.T., and King Kong, and some truly beautiful location shooting is not enough to make up for the sloppy storytelling.
In a dashed-off prequel, young Pete (Oakes Fegley) is orphaned after his parents are killed in a car crash. Finding himself alone in the woods and surrounded by menacing wolves, Pete is saved in the nick of time by a furry dragon (why not scaly, like most movie dragons? Because like many young kids, Pete is a complete narcissist, and the dragon is basically whatever he wants it to be at the moment). Jumping forward six years, Pete has become a regular jungle boy of the forest, living an idyllic existence with his pal Elliot (a name bestowed by Pete, based on a book he was reading at the time of the car crash). The film makes little attempt at world-building (I’m still wondering what this dragon eats—not little boys, apparently) and is full of unexplained wonders like why Pete’s speech has actually matured while living apart from other humans. But never mind—if you start asking questions, you’ll get nowhere with this film.
There’s trouble in paradise, as loggers are harvesting the trees that are essential to the habitat of Pete and Elliot’s home, and Pete’s existence is discovered by a forest ranger (Grace, played by Bryce Dallas Howard) and her stepdaughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). Grace has heard about dragons in the forest from her dad, Meacham (Robert Redford), but has always considered them to be just another of his tall tales. She’s has a mother’s instinct concerning Pete, however, and takes him into her home (with the somewhat reluctant acquiescence of her fiancé Jack, played by Wes Bentley) to spare him becoming a ward of the state. In the meantime, the chief asshole (Karl Urban) of Jack’s logging operation decides to capture Pete (he’s not sure why, but profit is certainly his key motive, because he’s just that kind of guy). Lots more stuff happens, but most of it neither sufficiently grounded in reality to be truly engrossing nor sufficiently magical to make you accept it on its own terms.
It’s hard to figure out the intended audience for Pete’s Dragon. It’s too scary for very young children, but too sloppy for anyone old enough to expect created worlds to establish and follow their own internal logic. The rules of dragon-land are never made clear, while the ordinary laws of biology and physics in the human world, to say nothing of what we know of psychology and linguistics, are suspended whenever the plot needs them to be. These shortcuts hand director/co-screenwriter David Lowery a get-out-of-jail-free card whenever he can’t figure out where the story should go next, but reduces audience satisfaction considerably. Most of the characters are paper-thin, and the eco-message and plug for family values are both more assumed than developed. The CGI is pretty good, and the New Zealand scenery is beautiful, but even for a kid’s summer movie Pete’s Dragon comes up seriously short. | Sarah Boslaugh