Saturday, September 3, 2016

Film Friday: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Disney continues to generate live-action remakes of some of its classic and non-classic films. Some of these films have been better than others, but none have been particularly great. This time, Disney remade Pete’s Dragon, and the remake sucks pretty badly.

The original Pete’s Dragon was never a great film. It was a very representative example of the kinds of live-action films Disney was doing in the 1970s. It was fun. It was silly. It had just enough dark overtones to create some tension and make you sympathize with the characters, but otherwise it was just a zany-lite comedy with lots of sight gags.
The plot to the original involved a young orphan boy named Pete, who runs away from an abusive foster family of hillbillies and stumbles upon a small fishing town in the year 1900. The town is called Passamaquoddy and Pete arrives with an invisible cartoon dragon named Elliott he found in the woods along the way. Elliott draws the attention of a conman named Dr. Terminus, who makes phony medicine. He wants to capture Elliott and turn him into medicine. The rest of the film is a story of Pete fitting in with the new town as he and Elliott try to dodge Dr. Terminus.

As with other Disney films of the era, like The Boatniks and The Apple Dumpling Gang, these films were just meant to be fun. They weren’t classics. Disney wasn’t aiming for awards or probably even films that would be remembered. They were just putting out fun stuff to entertain kids. They excelled at this, and many of these films are fondly remembered because of it.
The remake of Pete’s Dragon is slicker. Its production qualities are higher. It has stronger actors, like Karl Urban. They spent more money on settings and their effects are far superior. Yet, it won't be remembered. Why? Because it sucks. It sucks because it lacks heart.

The problem with this film can best be explained in this formula:
1970’s Disney: Cheap Production + Genuinely Heartfelt Story = Wonderful Movie

201?’s Disney: High Production + Formulaic Emotional Manipulation = Dud
That’s the thing. If you asked me about any element of the film, I would tell you that it was well done. The acting was standard. The effects were standard. The music was obnoxiously standard. The story hit all the required highs and lows right on cue to create a standard movie. But there was no heart whatsoever. I did not care about anyone or anything I saw on film.
The movie starts with Tarzan, er Mowgli, er Pete being lost in the woods when his parent die in a car accident. Six years later, he is found by the lonely forest ranger chick whose boyfriend is a responsible logger and whose father is Robert Redford who loves to tell children stories of seeing a dragon. With no effort whatsoever, Pete takes to the forest ranger and becomes part of her family. Seriously, the only possible hangup is the twenty seconds where the ranger chick drives him to social services to be adopted but then decides to keep him without going in. There is no moment of tension between Pete and the girl who will suddenly be his sister either, and the father is irrelevant. Even when Elliott tracks Pete to the house and seems to be sad that Pete has left him, that only lasts around thirty seconds before they are reunited.

None of these characters are the least bit genuine and there is zero emotional content. Sure, they all mug for the camera and the director makes sure you get to see tears, but there's no substance what so ever.
The closest thing we come to an emotional driver for the film is black-hearted Karl Urban who decides he wants to hunt Elliott. Karl is neutered, however, because he wants to make sure Elliott is unharmed so he can somethingsomething with him and get rich. Of course, he does eventually catch Elliott, but Elliott escapes and then saves the father and ranger from the fire he caused on a bridge. Yawn.

At no point is there even the possibility of emotional connection. Everything in this film comes easy and fast. There is no danger whatsoever. There is no sacrifice. There is nothing to make you like these people or dislike them or want them to succeed or fail. There isn’t even any humor to make you enjoy watching them.
What’s worse, to try to make you care, this film is packed with heavy-handed emotional manipulation. The music pounds away with well-worn over-the-top manipulative notes. YOU ARE SAD!! THIS MAKES YOU HAPPY!! NOW YOU ARE SCARED!! The camera gets fuzzy and the lighting goes golden when Pete stares at the Ranger or she stares at him. Cue the strings, she just let a glistering-based tear fall down her cheek. The lighting goes down as the hunter appears. BUM BUM BUM!! YOU ARE TERRIFIED!!

Melodrama is subtle compared to what this film does.

The original Pete’s Dragon was cute because Pete and Elliott cared for each other, protected each other from danger, and ultimately needed to abandon each other so Pete could grow up. The new film has none of that. It goes through the motions, but it’s basically “overly-cute child actor must mug for ‘aren’t I adorable’ shots as he moves into so-perfect-it’s-fake home of actress wearing Park Ranger gear” while the “technical” aspects of the film beat you over the head with what you are supposed to be feeling.

This is the problem with constructing movies through the lens of marketing. It’s got all the parts, but it has no life.


PikeBishop said...

Wow, such a mediocre Disney effort that no one thought to even comment. Says something doesn't it? ;-)

tryanmax said...

I'm fond of the original Pete's Dragon, though I recognize how cheap and cheesy it is, and I'm not at all philosophically opposed to remakes. Still, when I saw the first promo for this remake, I thought "dear lord, why?" Maybe if they'd kept it a musical...

AndrewPrice said...

PikeBishop, This is a hard time for films. I'm seriously having a hard time finding anything worth talking about. Almost everything they put out these days falls in the "meh" category. Movies have become like fast food.

AndrewPrice said...

tryanmax, That was me too. I enjoyed the original, but never saw it as iconic or a treasure or anything, and I have no problem with remakes. This was just a lousy movie. It lost all the charm, all the heart, and all the humor. In its place, you got heavy-handed manipulation and a plot that defined "cliche."

PikeBishop said...

Andrew: Yeah I've said it before about my near total enui about films currently: Hard not find something that is NOT...super hero...action franchise...CGI spectacular...romantic comedy...lame remake (see above)....fart joke level comedy (or the rare Judd Apatow cutting edge, two actors ad libbing and improvving about farts for ten minutes...oh boy), preachy liberal screed drama, or animation. (I am not averse to animated films, but I don't have children and my foreign born wife just has that traditional mentality that cartoons = silly and childish...oh well). Have I missed anything?

Unknown said...

I liked the original...I saw it at 5 at the movie theatre, and it was perfect to me as a seventies' kid...I liked the bond of Pete and Elliot..."Candle on the Water" was a decent heart-felt tune. Yes, it was weird and cheesy, but that was part of the charm. The remake is horrid...Bryce Dallas Howard is a terrible actress who seems to have to star with dragons and dinosaurs and other terrible actors. As said, it tried too hard to be sentimental and environmental, and my kids and I could not connect with any of the characters. Not to mention, the dragon was FURRY and not appealing at all. What a disappointment!

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