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Review: ‘Pete’s Dragon’ is worth the repeat trip

August 8, 2016 GMT

A song from Disney’s original 1977 film “Pete’s Dragon” seems to sum up nicely what Hollywood has been up to in the last five to 10 years. Just consider for this metaphor that instead of a dragon, it’s a library of already-existing classic films or “intellectual property.”

Every little piece, every little piece.

We could make a million by slicing him, dicing him --

Hoagy, we could sell every little shell

There’s enough of him to go around.

Money, money, money by the pound!

The song is sung by two money-grubbing traveling salesmen (one of whom, by the way, is played by Jim Dale, beloved now as the vocally gifted narrator of the “Harry Potter” audiobooks). Rather than creating original, independently effective products of their own, the two con men gleefully sing about how they will steal a dragon and “clip him up, rip him up. Every little part is a work of art -- think of what a dragon heart would bring.”

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A crass metaphor, maybe, but one that seems appropriate in 2016, (or, as it will be known to future generations, 1 A.T.F.W., being the first year After The Force Awakened). It’s the year that “Ghostbusters” stoked controversy, the year that we got an “Angry Birds” movie, the year that we are actually getting a new “Ben Hur.”

And now we have “Pete’s Dragon,” a remake of a film that -- hey, just like “Star Wars” -- originally premiered in 1977. And it’s the second remake from Disney this year, after “The Jungle Book,” which was also a movie about a boy raised among trees without other humans (spiking my “deja-vu-o-meter” to seriously dangerous levels).

The question is, is there really “enough of (pre-existing property) to go around”?

The answer, in this case, is a resounding “Bop Bop Bopbop Bop.” Which translates, I believe, to yes!

Director David Lowery comes to “Pete’s Dragon” after the success of his Sundance crime drama “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” and his talents here are not wasted. They don’t even appear to be trampled by the ever-feared “studio meddling” that has broken even the most critically acclaimed indie directors in the past.

The 2016 version of “Pete’s Dragon” is a lush experience, both visually and aurally. Every frame appears to have been carefully thought out and crafted, and the same thing goes for the sound design. When Mowgli -- I mean Pete -- wakes up in a hospital room, the light and sounds of fluorescent lights create an all-encompassing sense of suffocation compared to his forest home.

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The camerawork and digitally designed effects -- which are indistinguishable from each other -- are wonderful too, and they create a realistic and inviting world for the story.

Several narrative points are unchanged in the 2016 version from the original: Pete is an orphan, watched over by his friendly dragon, Elliot. Robert Redford plays a more sagely and quietly confident version of the grandfather figure than Mickey Rooney played. He claims to have seen the dragon before all doubt is removed, and Redford’s version evokes more faith in powerful myth than Rooney’s ever did -- he played the character more like a misunderstood madman in the original version.

The biggest difference between 1977 and 2016 is tone. Chipper musical numbers have been replaced with several non-diegetic folk tunes that play throughout the film.

In short, “Pete’s Dragon” has had much of its “Brazzle Dazzle” surgically removed, though no part of the original film’s fun -- or magic -- has been harmed at all.

Thematically, the movie makes an effective argument about the danger of meddling with or claiming ownership of things that obviously exist outside the jurisdiction of human beings. How can you claim to own a dragon, for example? Or for that matter, how can you claim ownership of nature itself? The best we can do, the movie suggests, is to develop relationships with communities, people and nature, based on mutual appreciation and fidelity.

In some ways, the movie reminded me more of “The Iron Giant” or “E.T.” than the original “Pete’s Dragon,” but I was surprised to also notice elements that seem straight from Herman Melville. In his classic short story “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Melville sets an uncontrollable force inside the tightly wound culture of corporate business and then gleefully watches the system around it self-destruct, unable to accommodate an entity that doesn’t easily fit within it.

Pete and Elliot are both Bartleby-like forces that the world they collide with proves initially unequipped to handle.

Which brings me to a brief aside I need to make about the film’s depiction of social workers. As in Disney’s “Lilo and Stitch,” “Pete’s Dragon” generates drama by drumming up the worry that a child will be placed into the care of the state. Maybe it’s because I’m going to marry a social worker later this year, but that rubs me the wrong way. In a world where dragons don’t actually provide life-sustaining guardianship to orphans, social workers are the ones actually trying to figure out how to give children like Pete the care they need. They aren’t the villains here.

But I digress. From the first emotionally gripping scene, “Pete’s Dragon” had my attention and admiration for its entire running time.

I’m still disappointed by the stronghold that “pre-existing I.P.” has on the pool of money that goes to financing big movies. And I haven’t lost faith that we’ll get another “Star Wars” someday (by which I do not mean another “Star Wars,” literally, which we will undoubtedly get from now until forever). And as excited as I am when a director emerges from the indie world and is given command of a blockbuster budget, that excitement is dashed a bit when the opportunity comes with strings of pre-existing storylines or characters.

When it’s done as effectively as it is in “Pete’s Dragon,” I have nothing substantial to complain about remakes. But my concern is for future generations. When I have kids of my own, I have to wonder: What will they get to see once all of the movies have already been remade?

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