In a year marked by a number of remakes of inconsistent quality (‘Jungle Book’, ‘Ghostbusters’, etc.), Disney’s latest remake, ‘Pete’s Dragon’ stands out as the best by far. Indie writer / director David Lowery (‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’) has taken only the basic idea of the original animation/live action hybrid (a popular trope of the 1970s) and crafted something classically magical. Remakes are risky in that they rely on brand recognition for success, but can be cursed through comparison to the original. It’s rare when they try something truly different from the source material and are able to evoke true emotion successfully.
Setting the film in the vast, expansive (and very evergreen) forest of the Pacific Northwest gives it a mythic North American feel. It appears to be set in the 1970s or 80s based on the car models, clothes, and phones, but really it could be any time period in a small logging town, nestled away from the major urban bustle. The isolation of the characters adds to its’ overarching sense of fairy-tale wonder, yet it is deeply rooted in realistic texture.
The film opens with a tragic scene of loss, as toddler Pete is left stranded in said wilderness. He is almost immediately beset by the perils of the wild, as a pack of wolves corner him. The predators are scared off by the dragon of the title, who turns out to be a gentle giant with a protective, parental streak. He is named Elliot after the book held onto by Pete, his prized and only possession. The film then moves six years later to show an older Pete (now played by Oakes Fegley without the precociousness usually on display in Disney child actors) living as a wild child in the forest, effectively being raised by his protector, the fully realized CGI marvel created by Weta Digital (‘Lord of the Rings,’ ‘The Hobbit’).
Not only is Elliot fully rendered as realistically as a dragon in the forest can be, he is unlike any dragon design that has come before. Furry, rather than scaly, with one large bottom canine protruding from his mouth (the other is broken in a story that remains untold), he comes across as more of a giant green dog, albeit one that can fly via leathery wings that seem almost too small to lift his hefty body. The effects work with this dragon are subtle as the movie works almost wordlessly to express the deep emotional bond between boy and dragon. Through a combination of a quiet, almost country score by Daniel Hart, vivid acting by all those who encounter Eliot in awe, and the palpable special effects juxtaposing the boy and surroundings with this creature, filmmaker Lowery creates an experience in empathy rather than a straight narrative.
The principal actors each understand the kind of earnest movie that they are in. Bryce Dallas Howard plays forest ranger Grace with a real love for her occupation, although as relayed by her father Meacham, she has lost her sense of imagination and faith. Meacham is known throughout the small town as a bit of storyteller, regaling anyone who will listen with tall tales of his encounter with the dragon in the forest. That he is played with crusty glee and a wisp of nostalgia by Robert Redford, lends his lines even more gravity and emotion – one can’t help but get swept up in his awe over what he describes as pure magic when he first saw the dragon many years before. Even Karl Urban’s greedy ‘villain’ Gavin is not above overcoming his tendency to have little respect for the natural world beyond self promotion.
‘Pete’s Dragon’ is devoid of cynicism – there are no silly quips or pop culture references, no true evil, just misunderstanding and a warning around man’s drive to conquer. This film has the ability to captivate young viewers and transport older viewers back into wide-eyed children, all who can imagine having a loyal, giant dragon as a best friend. Audiences may have experienced this type of story before countless times, from ‘Old Yeller’ to ‘E.T.’, but when done this sincerely, and told with such unsullied emotion, it’s absolutely impossible to resist, whether you’re ten years old or eighty . . .
Directed By: David Lowery
Written By: David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks
Running Time: 103 min.
* * * * (out of 4 stars) -OR- A