Pete’s Dragon is family entertainment at its best.
Pete’s Dragon is a continuation of a new Disney trend – the feral boy and his animal friends – that started this past March with The Jungle Book. Both movies tell tales of boys whose parents died and how they’ve learned to adapt to a wild world that allows them their freedom. Unlike Jungle Book, though, Pete’s Dragon lets Pete realize the benefits of a community, one that not only accepts him for who he is, but encourages his creativity and animal spirit. Reinvigorating the story of a boy and his dragon, director David Lowery beautifully re-imagines the 1977 film. Filled with warmth and good cheer, Pete’s Dragon sets the bar high for future Disney remakes.
Much of the animal spirit and freedom at the heart of the film comes from Lowery, the director of 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Saints brought Lowery into the conversation of new and innovative directors, and, as with that film, he returns audiences to the pastoral world of small-towns and endless woods. Everything in the town of Millhaven possesses a near-sepia tint, but the woods are green and thriving. Lowery takes time to show off the trees, grass and sky that make the woods so mysterious and magical with a lyrical reverence akin to Terence Malick. A subplot involving deforestation even comments on saving these landscapes.
But the woods around the town of Millhaven are rumored to contain dragons. And when a feral boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) is discovered to have lived in the woods for six years, everyone wonders how. It’s soon realized that Pete survived with the help of his best friend, a large green dragon named Elliot. Of our time and yet outside it, Millhaven doesn’t have any emphasis on technology – there’s not a cell phone to be seen – and the effect evokes a timeless feel. Pete’s Dragon also continues Lowery’s love affair with fables, complete with wise old man narration (said old man just happens to be Robert Redford), a catchy tale of warning and a moral that isn’t just laid out front for the audience to trip over.
Redford’s Meachum is the town kook who saw Elliot once upon a time and has turned the tale into a vicious story of a man slaying a dragon for the amusement of children. Meachum’s daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), is the local park ranger with a heart of gold, and Karl Urban’s Gavin is the villain who sneeringly says “Let’s go huntin'” when he thinks a dragon is in their midst. In any other movie, these characters would be underwritten, but the combination of acting talent and Lowery’s magical realism present them as idealizations of what we wish people could be like, easily deduced and possessing open hearts worthy of change.
Subtextually, Pete’s Dragon is a manual for loss. Each of the assembled group has lost either both parents, a mother or, more implied than the others, a wife. Elliot stands in for the comfort and companionship, and overall safety, that comes from having someone to take care of and be taken care of by. Pete’s catharsis, and the implication that he needs to let Elliot go, comes from realizing a person is gone and isn’t coming back and accepting that. The film’s fabled storytelling situates Elliot as a representative of childhood, of nostalgia itself; we can never return to those exact feelings, but the memories remain.
Oakes Fegley lacks the charm of The Jungle Book’s Neel Sethi, but that’s only because Pete is an introvert. He’s the sole survivor of a horrible tragedy and insulates himself as a means of protecting both himself and Elliot. As his makeshift family, Howard’s Grace is the portrait of the fairy godmother. Pete’s trust in her and Howard’s innate sensitivity are amazing to witness. Karl Urban is fun as the villain who’s more of a doofus than the devil. Redford gives us our wise old grandfather figure, and Oona Laurence, fresh off her work in Southpaw, shines as Pete’s friend, Natalie.
Elliot’s design continues to show Disney’s advancements in CGI. It lacks The Jungle Book’s photorealism, but there’s still a tactile quality to this green Sully-esque dragon. Disney also, wisely, lowers the amount of dog gags they usually do when relying on animal characters (dragon, goose, horse – they all end up dog-like). My screening had issues with the 3D at the beginning, but, based on how long we were able to watch without the glasses, the 3D here is negligible.
Even if you’ve never watched Walt Disney’s original Pete’s Dragon, this remake certainly embraces Disney’s 1970s love of simple country folk and folktale fantasy. Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon is family entertainment at its best, the bedtime story you will want to read to your children and hope they will pass along to theirs. It’s a gentle, folksy story that’s nothing short of delightful.