The Pete’s Dragon remake is coming out tomorrow (as of the time I’m writing this sentence), and the reviews that have come out so far almost unanimously agree that it’s BETTER than the original. This makes me a little relieved, since I was a bit worried that it would be more The Shaggy Dog than King Kong.
Why was I worried? Well, the main criticism of adaptions (generally book-to-movie, but also movie-to-new-movie) is that they show no respect for the original. And the director of Pete’s Dragon 2016, David Lowery, committed the ultimate act of disrespect toward the 1977 version: he didn’t even watch it. So far as I understand, he and his writing partner wrote the script for the new movie going off of his memories of seeing the movie multiple times as a 6-year-old. However, reading Lowery’s blog, I saw that he was approaching his version with a large amount of passion.
Let’s talk about The Shaggy Dog and King Kong for a moment. Both are franchises I’m slightly obsessed with, but one is the worst remake I have ever seen in my life, and the other is the best. (For clarification, I’m talking about the 2005 King Kong, not the 1976 King Kong, which was solidly mediocre and which I will only rewatch if I’m marathoning all the Kong movies.)
At first glance, the difference between them seems to be that The Shaggy Dog couldn’t care less about its source material, while King Kong was obsessed with the original to a fault, almost breaking the fourth wall to acknowledge the 1933 version. (When trying to think of actresses to be a last-minute replacement for their lead who dropped out, movie director Carl Denham–who is in the year 1933–contemplates asking “Fay,” but she’s doing a picture for “Cooper” with RKO. In 1933, RKO produced King Kong, directed by Merian Cooper and starring Fay Wray. In case moviegoers missed the reference, the soundtrack plays the original Kong theme at this moment.)
Listening to the director’s commentary for The Shaggy Dog, on the other hand, it’s hard to avoid the impression that the director made the movie just for the paycheck. It takes elements from the original Shaggy Dog and its sequel The Shaggy D.A. (actually, the remake borrows more from D.A. than Dog) and puts them in a blender with some generic spend-more-time-with-your-kids family values, genetic engineering, fake science, and a thin, pre-Iron Man Robert Downey, Jr. to get an unrecognizable concoction that stinks more than the time I tried putting paper in an actual blender. (I got a weird green pulp that really stank badly.)
The main reason the King Kong remake worked so well, though, is that it tried to fix the problems of the original. Revered as the original is, the 1933 Kong really only makes sense if you’re not thinking too hard about it. Some things that were problematic with the original:
-The special effects look like they were made in the 1930s
-Ann Darrow does nothing but scream around Kong
-Carl Denham gets an actress so that his movie can have “romance,” but has no male lead. Or any other actors, in fact.
-In fact, Denham’s entire plan to make a movie seems to be showing up on an island no one ever heard of and hope that the mythical god Kong is real and filmable
-Once actually meeting Kong, Denham abandons his plan to actually make a movie
-Ann Darrow and Jack Driscoll fall in love for no reason (to be fair, this is still a problem in the remake)
-It’s never explained how they get Kong back to New York (to be fair, I don’t think this is addressed in the remake either)
-The natives are stereotypical and literally wear coconut bras
-The natives keep Kong out with a Kong-sized door.
-The movie isn’t 3 hours long (okay, this isn’t really a problem, but Peter Jackson apparently thought it was)
The remake retells the original, but tries to give more sense to the story–which is why it’s so good, in my opinion.
The Shaggy Dog attempted to fix problems with the original, too–but the reason that remake failed is that its solutions were worse than the original problems!
-The original movies had a talking dog. The remake attempts to rectify this problem by giving CONSTANT VOICE-OVER NARRATION OF TIM ALLEN-AS-A-DOG THOUGHTS (including Tim Allen saying “To infinity and beyond!”)
-The original movies had cheesy dog-transformation special effects. The remake has basically no transformation special effects.
-The original movies used a spell on a magic ring to turn the protagonist into a dog. The remake uses “science.” Because it makes sense that if a centuries-old dog who’s been experimented on bites you, dog-shaped genes will pull apart your red blood cells and turn you into a clone of the dog whenever your heart rate increases.
There is one serendipitous improvement on the original, owing solely to the fact that the remake was made after the 1990s: the remake gets to use “Who Let the Dogs Out?” in the soundtrack.
But what WOULD be the best way to improve on the original movies? Well–probably a complete reimagining, just a different kind of reimagining. If I were to attempt to remake The Shaggy Dog, in fact, I would probably return to the book that was ostensibly the inspiration for The Shaggy Dog, The Hound of Florence by Felix Salten, which was out of print from the 1930s to just a few years ago. Instead of trying to be weakly comedic like the movies, the book delves more into the emotional implications of turning into a dog every other night. It’s an angsty story about an orphaned teenager whose only hope of living a fulfilled life is to make it to the artistic haven of Florence, Italy, where he can receive training. His only hope is to be transformed into Cambyses, the dog of the Archduke who is going to said city. The transformation gets him to Florence, but it’s a double-edged sword, as he literally disappears into thin air mid-kiss, reappearing as a dog miles away, and has to explain away his constant disappearing.
Which brings me to Pete’s Dragon. Like the original Shaggy Dog movies, every fault about the original film is completely integrated into what it fundamentally IS: a Disney musical from the 1970s meant to be a sort of spiritual successor to Mary Poppins. To remake Pete’s Dragon as a musical with the same tone as the original wouldn’t jive with using realistic CGI animation. So what Lowery did what was probably the smartest course of action: keeping the core of the story (boy lives in woods with dragon until being found by kindly woman and her father, integrates into their family, says goodbye to dragon) but surrounding that core with completely new elements more true to his unique tone.
Ultimately, successful remakes are about pretending that a movie that already came out is still in development. Sometimes, there’s nothing that can be done to improve a movie, which is why 2001: a Space Odyssey will (hopefully) never be remade. When remaking something like King Kong, the original was so successful that the 2005 remake basically just tweaked a lot of small story points and used modern special effects. Pete’s Dragon was a movie that needed a near-complete overhaul, and it seems that David Lowery has, in fact, made an even better movie.