Pete's Dragon: Will kids love it as much as you loved the original?

Aug 10, 2016 at 2:14 p.m. ET
Image: Disney

The classic children's film Pete's Dragon gets a reboot from Disney. But does it bring the same on-screen magic you remember from the original? Let's just say a lot's changed since 1977.

Pete's Dragon from 1977
Image: Disney

The original Pete's Dragon, starring Mickey Rooney and Helen Reddy, was one of my all-time favorite movies as a kid. The story of Pete, a little orphan boy whose best friend was a pink and green dragon named Elliot, filled my heart with hope and delight. To me, the fact that Elliot played pranks on the citizens of Passamaquoddy was both joyfully defiant and hilarious. Elliot acted out all the fantasies we “good kids” never dreamed of actually attempting. I remember thinking, "If only I could make myself invisible too!"

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But for me, the Disney film was about a lot more than just creative ways to get away with bad behavior. At the story's emotional core were lessons in the power of friendship and the need to belong. The scene at the end of the film, where Pete asks Elliot if he'll ever see him again, broke my tiny heart. This moment brought tears to my eyes every single time I played the grainy VHS tape. Their relationship was the greatest expression of love my little-girl-self had ever seen — on screen or in real life.

To prepare for seeing the 2016 remake of Pete’s Dragon, I rewatched the original — not on a videotape this time, but on YouTube. Hoping for a fun trip down memory lane, I was actually a bit alarmed during my viewing.

Instead of a sweet kids' movie in which a boy sings little ditties about his dragon, my adult-self was viewing a weird mashup of 1970s gritty realism and campy, psychedelic glee — not to mention a tiny whiff of child abuse.

Pete's Dragon from 1977
Image: Disney

Ah, the '70s.

While I still found the story as sweet as can be, the mix of live action with a cartoon dragon looked so dated to me, especially after seeing so many dazzling Pixar films like Brave and Inside Out.

While animation technology has changed incredibly over the last 40 years, my warm, childhood memories of the film have not. Despite growing accustomed to the wonders of CGI, I was happy to discover that I still loved retro Elliot, goofy animation and all.

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Because I was so loyal to the original, I was worried about how I'd feel about Elliot's modern makeover in the new Pete's Dragon. The adorable, big-bellied reptile I grew up with now looks a heck of a lot different.

The old and new Pete's Dragon

Image: Disney

But audiences, especially kids, are much more sophisticated than they used to be. While I tend to prefer movies in 2-D and can feel nostalgic about some of the better old-school animation, our kids have grown up on Pixar films and hyperrealistic video games. A dopey-looking dragon just wouldn’t work in 2016.

Disney wisely hired Eric Saindon, the visual effects supervisor responsible for the dragons in The Hobbit films and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, to invent a new Elliot. Visually Elliot is a bit intimidating and may be a little scary to young kids at first, but soon it's clear he's really like a giant green puppy.

Pete's Dragon
Image: Disney

The filmmakers purposely gave the dragon fur, not scales, to make him appear more friendly and relatable — at least to Pete (Oakes Fegley). Elliot's ability to breathe fire does come in handy later on in the story, but the unleashing of his pryomaniacal powers does not come without provocation.

The Pete's Dragon of 2016 doesn't have singing or dancing, but it does send a new, important message: Our relationship with nature matters.

The new film ditches Passamaquoddy for the fictional town of Millhaven in the Pacific Northwest. The forest, both Pete's and Elliot's home, is being destroyed on a large scale. Saving a mythological dragon now becomes a metaphor for saving the natural environment — both are fierce, beautiful and awe-inspiring, but also incredibly fragile.

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Comparing the two movies is really like comparing apples and oranges, because each is a product of a very specific era in American culture. What both movies do share is a longing for family and home, the need to respect all creatures and the transformational power of love.

Without giving anything way, I will say the last image of the film brought tears to my eyes, just as the end of the original did. The two endings are different, but both are very special and emotional.

Bottom line

This is a terrific family film that will inspire a whole new generation to believe in dragons.

The film is one hour and 35 minutes.

Iffy for some toddlers, but perfect for elementary school-age kids, especially ones who love fantasy. There is a car crash in the opening scene that's a little scary.

There are no extra scenes after the credits.

Pete's Dragon flies into theaters Friday, Aug. 12.