Pete’s Dragon isn’t exactly a remake of the original 1977 Disney film. That film was a musical, with a hand-drawn animated dragon and a different story altogether, although the characters of Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his dragon Elliot remain. Instead of a whimsical Disney musical, David Lowery and co-screenwriter Toby Halbrooks have decided to take a different path in telling their story about lonely, orphaned Pete and the dragon of the forest who rescues and takes care of him. Like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial and The Iron Giant before it, Pete’s Dragon is a boy-meets-alien/giant/robot/mythical creature, bonds with it, and rallies against forcers that try to take it away. But while the story template has been done before, David Lowery takes the more difficult road, refusing to rely on nostalgia in telling his story. While the film is set in the 1980s (without giving us a direct year), Pete’s Dragon is timeless, not giving us any triggers to reminisce over.
Pete’s Dragon is also refreshingly free of irony. There are no smart-aleck kids who seem to be more intelligent than their elders, no harsh language dropped in for effect and for an unnecessary edge. I can’t recall a single cuss word in the movie. Pete’s Dragon is very earnest and true, and Lowery is insistent on keeping that tone throughout. When you have an actor of Robert Redford’s caliber looking up at the sky at a special effect, and selling it so completely, there isn’t much room for snark or cynicism. Pete’s Dragon is loyal to its positivity and finds its power in the simple beauties of its optimism, even when the film goes into darker places.
Pete is on a trip with his parents when they suddenly dodge an animal in the road and wreck their vehicle. With Pete’s parents gone, Pete must fend for himself in the deep forest when he discovers what appears to be a dragon in the woods. Naming him Elliot after a children’s book that he carries around, Pete and the dragon manage to survive undetected for six years until a timber company headed by Gavin (Karl Urban) makes deep cuts into the surrounding forest. Pete manages to get himself separated from Elliot, and finds his way into the family of Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Jack (Wes Bentley), Gavin’s brother and married to Grace. Grace’s father (Redford) once saw the dragon but no one believes him, and when Pete comes into his life, all his memories come rushing back. Elliot, in the meantime, is eagerly searching for Pete, but he can’t stay undiscovered for long, and soon Gavin and his team are looking for him to capture.
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Lowery directs these scenes with elegance and restraint; even the scene of Pete’s parents’ death is tastefully done and full of emotional impact. Elliot is a wonderful creation, who can turn invisible at will and reacts with bright colors on his skin when someone touches him. He feels alive and with weight, curious and funny, majestic and adorable. Eventually Pete and Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Lawrence) become co-conspirators in hiding Pete from the rest of the world, and the children’s performances feel honest and true, not unlike the work young Henry Thomas and Drew Barrymore did in E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Even Karl Urban, ostensibly the villain of the film, has facets to him that complicate him as a character. And then there’s Robert Redford, who brings such dignity and class to the movie that when he’s onscreen, Pete’s Dragon feels so much larger and fuller. Mr. Meacham is a dreamer, refusing to submit to the common wear-and-tear of everyday life, who still believes that there’s magic in the world, and Redford does all this with a twinkle in his eye and that knowing smile that he’s always been famous for.
All the while David Lowery keeps the tone consistent. Recently, Disney has been revisiting their animated roster by making live-action films of such classics as Cinderella, the upcoming Beauty and the Beast, and with Pete’s Dragon, the magical tone of the original film is secure (if without the songs). It is admirable how these films are making the transition to live-action – Cinderella is beautiful, cinematic, and emotionally true to the original film, and while Pete’s Dragon’s story is different than the original, the result is as pure a Disney film as any they’ve ever released.
Pete’s Dragon is for everyone – young and old, children at heart, who ever looked up to the skies and imagined great winged beasts dotting the sky and taking us on adventures of glorious flight. The film is sentimental, but in that good way where you don’t quite see the strings where Pete’s Dragon is manipulating you. David Lowery is a major new voice in cinema – with a few more films in his roster he could easily become one of the great visual directors, who can also deliver genuine power and emotion with the spectacle. He has a nice affinity with actors, getting great performances from everyone, even the children. He can work with special effects as varied as a massive fiery breath to the twinkle in a mischievous dragon’s eye. He has heart and spirit, and I look forward to more films from him.
Pete’s Dragon is joyous and full of wonder, and I can’t wait to see it again.
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