In his two-star review of the 1996 police drama Cop Land, Roger Ebert proposed rethinking how we approach remakes – or, to be more accurate, a reader did. “Rich Gallagher of Fishkill, N.Y., writes to ask why they only remake the good movies, not bad ones,” Ebert wrote. “Good films don’t require remaking, he observes, but what about ‘promising concepts which were poorly executed for one reason or another?’” Ebert was wrong about Cop Land, but he was right about remakes; as we’ve seen time and time again, in this risk-adverse moviemaking environment where studios would rather give us a lukewarm rehash of a familiar property than take a chance on something new, a remake of a movie that was good enough to warrant a remake will, inevitably, fail to recapture the magic of the original. And that’s what’s so brilliant about Disney’s decision to remake their 1977 film Pete’s Dragon, which was, by just about any metric, one of their lousiest features. It’s not like they were going to screw up some beloved favorite. They really could only improve it.
Admittedly, this judgment is by no means fresh; it’s based on a single VHS viewing of Pete’s Dragon, back when I was about nine years old. But if I know one thing about movie-watching, it’s that you don’t get an easier audience for a Disney movie than a nine-year-old kid, and even at that age, I knew Pete’s Dragon was a hokey, dopey, drippy bore. It’s hard to remember what’s worse about it: the cringe-worthy songs, the plodding plot, the excruciating two-plus hour running time, or the shoddy merging of cartoon dragon and live-action humans.
Thankfully, David Lowery’s new remake pretty much jettisons all of those flaws. Aside from a few basic elements – a small-town setting, an orphan boy named Pete, his protector/dragon pal Elliot, a kindly woman who takes the boy in – this is an entirely new work, and a miles better one. In a heartbreaking prologue, Pete’s parents are killed in a car wreck (Disney gonna Disney); he finds himself all alone in the forest, where he meets Elliot, and forms an immediate attachment. They live undisturbed in that forest for six years, until a logging project and a park ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) discover the boy and try to help him, only to disrupt his bond with the magical creature.
Fixes abound: the movie runs a brisk 103 minutes, with no songs (aside from the occasional twee soundtrack tune), and Elliot has been rendered not as a conventional cartoon, but as an eerily convincing, and likably furry, computer-generated creature. He’s framed, from that first scene, less like a scary dragon and more like a big, fluffy dog; that’s the approach through the rest of the film, whether he’s curled up for a nap or playfully chasing his own tail. But there’s real pathos in the character; there’s a scene where he sees a cozy family scene through a window, and displays a complexity of emotions that would elude all but our finest actors.
Yet even while dispensing with all but the barest remnants of the original, this new Pete’s isn’t exactly a revolutionary work; there are a number of narrative and thematic similarities to Disney’s other spring and summer efforts The Jungle Book and The BFG (in many ways, particularly its early-‘80s setting and sometimes cloyingly John Williams-inspired score, Pete’s Dragon feels more like a Spielberg movie than The BFG – not a knock on either film).
Thankfully Lowery’s approach to the material makes the old new again. Best known for his Malick-esque Sundance hit Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, he displays a degree of sensitivity and a sense of place uncommon to big-budget, branded efforts. We’ve seen a thousand sudden, scary car wrecks in movies, always shot the same way; Lowery, wonderfully, keeps the sweet music that led up to it going, and stays inside the car, with his protagonist, refusing to break the spell. In the small-town scenes, he’s got a sure eye and ear for the way local legends become fact, particularly to the custodians of those legends. In this case, Robert Redford tells the story of his long-ago dragon encounter with the captivated dizziness of a guy who just got home from it.
Lowery occasionally steps wrong with clumsy moments here and there, many of them surrounding the motivations of Karl Urban’s Gavin, who seems to be the bad guy primarily because one is needed. But those stumbles don’t do much damage. Lowery is a filmmaker of real skill and evocative finesse, capable of putting across the intensity of his lead characters’ bond and the trust they share, as well as the truth and emotion at the center of their relationship. More than anything, he conveys a real sense of awe and wonder; people are agog at this giant flying dragon, and too many big movies by too many jaded directors dispense with that notion entirely. Lowery’s not just an artisan crafting what could’ve been product – he’s creating a road map for how these remakes should be done, if, indeed, that’s where we’re going anyway.
Pete’s Dragon is out tomorrow.