Movie Mayhem -Pete’s Dragon & Ben-Hur

If you’re a follower of my blog, you’re probably aware that I am not the biggest fan of remakes, reboots and all the rest. I’ve previously railed about Hollywood turning their blockbuster machine into a Xerox machine, leaving most original content to wallow and “impress” in the specialty markets and film festivals, testing the waters before going wide. (One of those films, Hell or High Water, is a remarkable film with a great cast; having made over 3 million thus far in its slow burn release schedule, had the studios opened this wide from the jump, it more than likely would have made its budget back and then some opening weekend.) Where the real problem lies is when executives take a look at their company’s back catalogue, see dollar signs with titles that originally made a lot of money and think they can capitalize on that success with an inferior retread instead of looking for those titles with a brilliant premise but which failed because of horrible execution. In other words, instead of attempting to improve a weak product, they harm an already strong property for the sake of the bottom line.

In the last two weeks, there have been two remakes released to theaters. One is an enigma as it falls into a separate category that I will get into in just a second. The other, Pete’s Dragon, is the perfect example of a film that was in desperate need of an upgrade, taking the original idea and improving on it tenfold.

PetesBen-Hur

Ben-Hur — 2016; Directed by Timur Bekmambetov; Starring Jack Huston, Toby Kebbell, Nazanin Boniadi, Pilou Asbaek and Morgan Freeman; Pete’s Dragon — 2016; Directed by David Lowery; Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley and Karl Urban.

The original 1977 film about a young orphan and his best friend (who happens to be a flying dragon who can disappear) was a poorly executed mess of a film. The script, the acting, the effects and the music (this was in Disney’s live-action musical heyday) were all scrapped together as if everyone involved had better things to do. There was no love or passion put into this product and it shows in its execution, so this was the perfect opportunity to go back to the drawing board, examine where it went wrong, and produce a product that shines the way it was originally intended to shine.

 

Relative newcomer Oakes Fegley is incredibly engaging as Pete, an eleven-year old boy who lost his parents in a car accident, then befriends a dragon in the woods next to a small idyllic town. Pete names the dragon Elliot (based on the name of a character in a storybook, which is the only remnant left from his past — and already the story has more emotional resonance than the entire original film) and the two share a relationship that bounces from boy and his dog to loving brothers. One day, Pete stumbles upon Natalie (Oona Laurence), the daughter of Jack (Wes Bentley), a lumber production plant owner currently contracted to tear down sections of  Pete and Elliot’s home. Jack and his park-ranger girlfriend, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), take Pete back home, causing Elliot to attack Jack’s brother (Karl Urban), an understandable reaction based on fear of losing his home and his best friend.

Fegley plays his side of this separation with a soft patience. He wants very bad to get back to Elliot, but also understands the need for human connection, one of the main themes that run the entirety of the film. Though I would have liked to have seen more done with the relationship between Grace and her father (Robert Redford), what director David Lowery (along with screenwriting partner Toby Halbrooks) is able to accomplish with this theme is quite impactful. The climactic scene, which shows how much Elliot wants to protect his family, but also understands when that family is hurting, sums up the bond between these two characters perfectly.

Sadly, on the other end of the spectrum is the remake of the 1959 classic, Ben-Hur. Now I said this remake is an enigma, and that’s because both films were based off of “Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ,” a novel by Lew Wallace published in 1880. I don’t mind as much when a novel is adapted, as different interpretations of that novel can yield different results. And it turns out, this new iteration is the fifth filmed adaptation (if you count the 2003 animated version) of this particular story. So, if you consider this a remake of the 1959 classic, then you would have to consider that a remake in and of itself. But who really knows about those other films, much less the book?

With that said, I actually went into this new version blind, having never actually seen the Charlton Heston-led version (except for the chariot race; I mean, who hasn’t seen that). For example, although I knew the story of Judah Ben-Hur (Jack Huston) battling the Roman empire in the field of sport took place during Biblical period, I had no idea that Ben-Hur’s story intersected with the rise and fall of Jesus in different ways. It wasn’t off-putting by any stretch, just unexpected.

I will say, based on having a fresh pair of eyes going in, there are a few highlights in the film that make this new version worthwhile — in particular, the scene in the galleys. When a boy Ben-Hur was nursing back to health attempts to assassinate Pontius Pilate (Pilou Asbaek, resembling Joshua Jackson far too closely), Ben-Hur takes the fall and is sent to work as a slave in the galleys of a Roman ship. At one point, the fleet goes into battle, and director Timur Bekmambetov films the entire battle inside the vessel. It’s a breathtaking sequence that puts you in the mindset of what it must have felt like for the prisoners at that time.

The scene happens around the half-way point of the film and marks a turn in tone and pace for the better. The first half of the film is sluggish, to say the least, as they set up the characters and the motivations that will drive the second half of the film. There’s nothing really captivating about anything that happens until Ben-Hur is sent on his quest for revenge against his best friend and brother, Messala (Toby Kebbell). Only then does the film finally become engaged, bringing the fire that was delivered in the trailer.

Though only one of these remakes was entirely warranted, both films show a certain pride to their work. It was clear the filmmakers tried to add to the properties that had already been established rather than remake the film for the sake of remaking the film, but only one truly succeeded in that prospect (the aforementioned chariot race was only hurt by the addition of CGI). If more studios followed this formula, remakes probably wouldn’t feel as detestable as they currently do, and since the trend these days seems to be showing signs of fatigue (what with the majority of eyeballs moving to cable and Internet channels that produce fresh, new material), here’s hoping the executives finally take notice and stop relying so much on these retreads and start putting money back to where it should be: originality.

My Grades: Pete’s Dragon: A-; Ben-Hur: B

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Next week, new movies include Don’t Breathe, Mechanic: Resurrection and Hands of Stone. If you would like to see a review for one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.

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