1. Will my kids like it?
Absolutely, though if your kids don’t handle characters being in peril well, or might be particularly upset by watching a car crash, you might want to view it once on your own before taking them. Pete’s Dragon may possibly set a new record, even for a Disney film, for shortest time between parents’ first appearance and their deaths (you don’t actually see them die or see their dead bodies, so that’s a plus). It must be noted that Elliott (the titular dragon) does very few scary things, and is far more likely to make your kids want a plush toy of him than to frighten them. There are plenty of moments in the film that will be funny to most kids, and it does of course have a happy ending (not really a spoiler, I don’t think — it’s a Disney film aimed at kids).
2. Will I like it?
Yes, if you don’t mind having your emotions manipulated in obvious, sometimes shameless, ways. If you don’t get even just a little bit verklempt during some scenes, then you should check to see if you’re made of stone. But you’ll laugh or smile at least as often as you get weepy, so on the whole it’s an enjoyable experience. If you’re anything at all like me, at no point will you feel that you’re sitting through it just for your children, and that’s worth a lot.
3. How about the scenery and the special effects?
The movie is set somewhere in the Pacific Northwest in the early 1980s, but it was filmed in New Zealand, and it has many quite beautiful shots as a result. The dragon is absolutely gorgeous. If you’ve seen Peter Jackson’s Hobbit films, you will probably see as instantly as I did that the dragon was rendered by the same people who created Smaug, but rest assured the similarities to Smaug don’t go that far – Elliott seems at least as much dog as he is traditional dragon. He’s even, as you have probably noticed from the posters and photos from the film, furry. You would think that a furry dragon would look weird to people used to dragons portrayed as large, fire-breathing lizards, but if Elliott does look weird it’s only for a minute, and then you will be completely sold. The only times your belief in the dragon’s existence may waver are due to the child actors not quite making you think they’re reacting to a living creature. It is a bit convenient for the plot, but on the whole believable, that Elliott can turn invisible (and back again) at will.
4. OK then, so how are the (human) actors?
The cast includes Robert Redford as Meachem, a man who once saw the dragon when he was young, but (of course) nobody believes him, even his own daughter Grace, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, who is the main adult human character in the film. Redford is one of those actors who improves any movie he’s in, and Pete’s Dragon is no exception – he manages to out-act pretty much everyone else, yet somehow doesn’t steal most of his scenes.
Also in the cast is the always-good Karl Urban (Dr. McCoy in the Star Trek reboot movies, and Éomer in the Lord of the Rings movies, among many others), as Gavin, the closest thing the film has to a villain. Urban manages to make you dislike Gavin and not want him to win, but to want him to be redeemed more than you want him to just flat-out lose. Rounding out the chief adult characters is Wes Bentley as Jack, Gavin’s brother and Grace’s fiancé, but he seems to be in the film mostly just to fill those roles rather than to move the plot along – Jack seems to get to every scene of his just after the point where he could be a significant part of it.
The child actors – Oakes Fegley as the titular Pete and Oona Laurence as Jack’s daughter Natalie – make their characters believable most of the time, though as I mentioned above there are definitely moments when you will notice that they’re reacting to something that wasn’t there when they were filmed.
5. How does it compare to the original Pete’s Dragon from 1977?
It is many times better than the original, in my opinion. Not only is Elliott the dragon many times more interesting than the cartoon version in the original, but this film is better in every other way as well. The new version isn’t a musical, to begin with, though there is one song that’s repeated a bunch of times as part of the plot. And at no point in the 2016 version does Pete get treated like a slave, so that’s a huge improvement.
6. When is a good time for a bathroom break?
Pete’s Dragon clocks in at over two hours, so this may well be necessary for kids and adults alike. Fortunately, the plot is not terribly complicated, so there aren’t any especially bad or good times to go – no matter when you do, you’ll very likely figure out what you missed within a minute of returning to your seat, and so (I’m fairly sure) will most kids. When Gavin and his buddies start going hunting, that might be a good time, especially if your kids don’t handle tense, perilous scenes very well.
7. Is it worth paying more to see it in 3D?
The screening I attended was in 3D, and I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, Elliott is even more striking in 3D than I think he would be in 2D, because of course he/she/it is computer-rendered. On the other hand, some scenes were noticeably darker than they should have been, which I’m sure was a result of the 3D process. I guess I would have to say that it’s a little better in 3D than 2D, but probably not enough on balance to justify much of a price increase. I recommend seeing it in the theatre rather than waiting for it on home video, because the scenery and the special effects are honestly enough to make it worthwhile on their own, and they are far from the only good things about the film.
8. Do I have to stay through the end credits for a bonus scene?
No, and I’m glad for that, because the final shot of the film deserved to really be the final shot of the film, if that makes any sense. It will when you see it, trust me.
I attended a free preview screening of Pete’s Dragon. All opinions expressed in this article are my own.