MOVIE REVIEW: Pete's Dragon



Too many of Walt Disney Pictures’ current remakes of its heralded animated classics have soared too far towards gaudiness in the attempt for blockbuster-level spectacle.  They neglected the simple, wholesome charm and magic that made them special in the first place.  To that end, none of them would be considered improvements from the originals in any way, shape, or form.  The bloated streak of frenetic noise and creative disappointment ends with “Pete’s Dragon.”  It is the most poignant live-action Disney film since 2007’s “Bridge to Terabithia” and the closest any Walt Disney Pictures film has come in a long time to matching the signature emotional “Pixar Punch” of its animation brethren.

Any comparisons to the 1977 original favorite end with the names Pete, Elliot, and the notion of a hairy green dragon.  Divergent choices are made by introspective and naturalistic director David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) and his debuting fellow screenwriter Toby Halbrooks to create something that, finally and refreshingly, lives up the “re-imagining” and “improvement” labels.  The old maritime location, chipper song-and-dance numbers, vaudeville antics, Mickey Rooney blustering, and foppish scoundrels are replaced by a modern Pacific Northwest folk tale with common people, deeper family dynamics, and stronger bonds of loyalty. 

Newcomer Oakes Fegley is the orphaned Pete, a boy living for six years in the remote reaches of a coniferous forest after an accident separated him from his parents when he was five years old.  The boy was rescued by an enormous and benevolent dog-like dragon, an inseparable friend, caretaker, and protector that he calls Elliot.  For years, the possible existence of a mythological creature in these woods has stirred local bedtime stories and campfire tales of “The Millhaven Dragon,” many told and perpetrated by Mr. Meacham, a widowed woodcarver, played by Oscar winner Robert Redford, who has long claimed to encounter such a beast in his younger days. 

Mr. Meacham’s only child, a daughter named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), grew up enthralled by those woodland fantasies.  Today, Grace is an older non-believer and thoughtful forest ranger raising Natalie (Oona Laurence of “Bad Moms” and “Southpaw”), a daughter of her own, with her father Jack (Wes Bentley).  When Jack’s logging operation with his brother Gavin (Karl Urban) skirts too close to Pete and Elliot’s homestead, Grace and Natalie discover the boy and take him back to Millhaven.  Separated from Pete, Elliot panics and also gets spotted, this time by Gavin and his fellow hunting enthusiasts, sparking a struggle for freedom, reunion, and kinship.

From top to bottom, the rustic tone, look, and feel of the film is incredibly prudent and befitting its folk tale transformation into a living myth.  The New Zealand locations captured by Bojan Bazelli’s camera are wide and majestic for scope while still maintaining an intimacy to carve out a nestled home for a little boy and his wild companion.  The special effects to create Elliot are clean, modest, and never garish.  Lindsey Stirling’s electric violin solos back a genteel musical score from composer Daniel Hart (“Tumbledown”).  His sound is meshed with a down-home soundtrack of cuts from The Lumineers, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, St. Vincent, Leonard Cohen, Bosque Brown, and Okkervil River covering the classic “Candle in the Water.”

The performances step right in to match the pastoral tone with a constant moral influence.  Unlike the trappings of the more glamourous Disney remakes, “Pete’s Dragon” is free of lame sidekicks, loud comic relief, and other wasteful and mismatched ingredients.  Even the opposition Karl Urban represents is far from the clichéd over-the-top villainy we are used to swallowing.  Oakes Fegley is natural and not petulantly over-coached as a child actor in his first starring feature.  Call me an easy mark, but the sun can shine through a black hole anytime Bryce Dallas Howard beams with expression.  In a casting coup, David Lowery could not have enlisted a better bookending sage presence than Robert Redford, who punctuates each of his lines with perfect sincerity.

Blooming out of a cradle of artistic and narrative perseverance, it is clear a philosophy of great care and pleasant patience was given to “Pete’s Dragon” by Lowery and company.  The film enhances the magical charm audiences remember from the original with newly gained maturity to operate as a loving family drama and touching adventure of friendship.  It is a welcome and calming addition of heft painted by that superb idyllic tone.  The wonderment never overplays its moments.

The film stands as an example Disney would be wise to emulate moving forward with their future “re-imaginings” (take note, “Beauty and the Beast”).  The stirring emotions can hit Pixar-level hard, making “Pete’s Dragon” much more suitable for ages 8 and up.  Theatre ushers better come with equipped with arms ready for hugs and mops instead of brooms for the puddles of empathetically shed tears that will be waiting for them when the audience departs.

LESSON #1: JUST BECAUSE YOU CAN’T SEE IT, DOESN’T MEAN IT’S NOT THERE—This simple and timeless lesson of belief chimes both literally with a dragon that becomes invisible and figuratively with cynical people lacking the faith to still believe the dreams, stories, and fantasies they clung to as children.  Listen to the old man.

LESSON #2: FRIENDS IN A PROTECTOR ROLE—“Pete’s Dragon” is a simple story of friendship between a child and his surrogate guardian presence.  Elliot is not Pete’s pet.  He is a kindred spirit and presence all his own, one that Pete himself is protective of in return.  Think “E.T.” more than “Marley and Me.”   

LESSON #3: THE RECIPROCITY BETWEEN CAREGIVERS—A caregiver, be that a friend, parent, guardian, or other figure, gives unconditional support to those who need it.  In the most ideal symbiotic examples, the caregiver is rewarded in return with a boost of self-worth knowing they helped someone or something in the right direction.  Elliot and Pete look after and rub off on each other in that very way, cementing their ever-present bond.