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.
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 problem with this film can best be explained in this formula:
1970’s Disney: Cheap Production + Genuinely Heartfelt Story = Wonderful MovieThat’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.
201?’s Disney: High Production + Formulaic Emotional Manipulation = Dud
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.
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.
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.