*Spoiler alert!! Don’t read any further if you are avoiding spoilers! You’ve been warned!*
2016’s version of Pete’s Dragon is a slower quieter movie than it’s 1977 counterpart. It’s a nice change in today’s world of children’s movies. Pete’s Dragon is a more grounded and thoughtful adaptation, though I miss the older movie’s musical scores and larger than life characters.
Disney’s Pete’s Dragon (2016) manages to catch the imagination of the audience from the first moment Elliot (voice of John Kassir) appears in the forest to Pete (Oakes Fegley) after surviving a car accident. Pete is alone but thrives with the help of his dragon, Elliot. A park ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) discovers Pete in the forest. Unfortunately, this brings Gavin (Karl Urban) and other loggers to discover Elliot and capture him. Gavin claims he owns Elliot, but his victory is short-lived as Pete, Natalie (Oona Laurence), and Grace’s father, Meachum (Robert Redford), rescue and free Elliot.
The plot from Disney’s new Pete’s Dragon is paired down for simplicity without the bustle from extra characters and musical numbers. I enjoyed the purity of the new movie, but I am left wondering if a film closer in similarity to the original Pete’s Dragon is achievable. 1977 was a very different time and the older film’s storyline is set in the time and place of 1900’s East Coastal America. Today’s Pete’s Dragon is located in more recent times in forests comparable to the Pacific Northwest, though the film was shot in New Zealand. Pete’s Dragon (2016) utilizes its forested surroundings to establish a calm wildness throughout the movie not found in the original.
In the 1977 Pete’s Dragon, Pete (Sean Marshall) is an orphan but there is no explanation about how he became an orphan. We know he is running away from an abusive family, the Gogans, who claim paid ownership over Pete. Elliot (voice of Charlie Callas) remains a constant protector of Pete from harm and especially from the Gogans.
In Pete’s Dragon (2016) Elliot protects Pete mostly from wildlife, while anything resembling the Gogans is absent. The earlier movie depicts how abusive adults take advantage of underprivileged children, though doing it through the use of a stereotyped poor family. Disney did not explore the topics of child abuse and how children are treated as property in the 2016 movie. It is disappointing Disney missed an opportunity to address such an issue for today’s audience. Perhaps, there just isn’t a way to do it in a family movie in such a political atmosphere.
Both portrayals of Elliot are charming. Pete’s Dragon (2016) created a large green fuzzy dog like creature similar to The Neverending Story’s Falkor. The 1977 Elliot is a green cartoon with pink hair and small wings. The first reaction to Elliot by characters in the movie is fear after seeing a creature that is supposed to only exist in fairy tales. Nora in the 1977 film attempts to open the hearts of the people in the town for Elliot and Pete. This leads to the endearing song, “There’s Room for Everyone”.
In both movies, characters attempt to capture and own Elliot. In the 2016 movie Gavin captures and chains Elliot to the back of a trailer then claims he owns the dragon. In the 1977 version Doc Terminus (Jim Dale), Hoagy (Red Buttons), and the local fishermen attempt to capture Elliot to sell dragon parts and bring the fish back to their local area of the sea. Elliot isn’t the only one characters try to own. In the early movie, the Gogans keep throwing a bill of sale in everyone’s face to prove Pete is their legal property.
These continuous attempts to own another contrasts with the relationship between Pete and Elliot. Pete and Elliot belong to each other, not because one owns the other through force or money, but because they need, rely upon, and care for each other. Pete builds a similar caring relationship in the 1977 film with Nora (Helen Reddy) and Lampie (Mickey Rooney). The same relationship in the 2016 version is constructed for Pete with Grace and her family. Pete even discloses to Elliot he needs Grace and Jack (Wes Bentley) while being chased across the bridge and we finally witness Elliot’s fire breathing.
Disney continues to pleasantly surprise me this year. Pete’s Dragon (2016) is a touching and gentle story. Even though I prefer the older film, the new movie retains its magic. Both films succeed in the portrayal of a child coping with dark and heavy topics such as abuse, homelessness, and death. Sometimes the need for love and understanding can only be found in a dragon.
Go see Pete’s Dragon if you are a fan of the first Disney movie or need a solid family friendly movie to watch. I also recommend checking out the 1977 movie especially if you enjoy musicals. The songs from Pete’s Dragon (1977) are catchy and fun to sing along with! It’s worth a trip down memory lane.