Pete's Dragon
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92 min.
Release Date
Pete's Dragon

Within the soft-filtered, dreamy first scenes of Pete’s Dragon, lasting until the final moment of resounding happiness, director David Lowery and his co-writer Toby Halbrooks placed an ever-present lump in my throat. Often throughout the film, that lump was accompanied by tears streaming down my face. These were tears of sadness, of empathy for the overwhelming sense of loneliness at the film’s core, of fear for what might happen to the titular boy and his dragon, and finally of joy. Walt Disney Pictures’ remake of their 1977 original couldn’t be less a conventional spectacle or further removed from the source material. CGI nonsense does not leap at the screen and numb our brains. Rather, characters have feelings that guide this picture, alongside a pitch-perfect atmosphere of tenderness and earthiness, and just the right amount of peril—but not too much. It all makes the journey into an incredible family adventure, at the end of which the characters, and the audience, find their way home.

With Disney in full nostalgia mode, they have steadily been in the process of remaking their animated features into live-action blockbusters (last year Cinderella; this year The Jungle Book). The original Pete’s Dragon, based on J.M. Barrie’s book, was a live-action musical featuring a dragon composed of hand-drawn animation. For the remake, the studio demonstrates their willingness to take risks and try something completely different than their recent, rather formulaic output. Talks with Lowery began as early as 2012, and he convinced the studio to try something dissimilar from the original by showing executives this HSBC commercial about lumberjacks, and then, according to a recent interview, he said, “Now I just want you to imagine this commercial with a dragon in it, and that’s the movie I think we should make.” The studio was sold.

The original has not aged well. Fond childhood memories of the original picture might be soured by rewatching it, especially after seeing what a wonderfully controlled film Lowery has put together. Fortunately, the viewer won’t be reminded of that picture by watching the new version. The director has said he and Halbrooks avoided revisiting the 1977 to prevent any references to the original, intentional or otherwise, from entering their film. Remakes today often try to recreate iconic moments from their sources, often to disastrous effect (titles like the recent Total Recall or Spike Lee’s Oldboy, for example). Viewers won’t see Lowery’s version of well-known scenes; he allows the original to exist in its own world, while his film remains separated by his commitment to his own vision and Disney’s support of it.

Lowery’s most well-known filmic work prior to teaming with Disney for Pete’s Dragon was 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a picture that drew heavily from Terrence Malick’s debut Badlands (1973). Lowery’s film starred Casey Affleck as a Texas outlaw who escapes prison to reunite with his wife, played by Rooney Mara, and their child, whom he’s never seen. The director carries over a clear, attributable style to Pete’s Dragon, where the story is simplistic, but his presentation comes with rich characterizations and a mood cultivated from deep emotions. To be sure, Lowery once again borrows from Malick, although this time the source seems to be The Tree of Life (2012), where Malick explored the origins of the universe, the formation of Earth, a rare moment of compassion between dinosaurs—all against the raw dramatics of a Texas family in the 1950s, and all in an effort to find a sort of serenity in the natural world.

The new film moves the story from a fishing community in Maine to a logging community in the Pacific Northwest. The year remains unsaid, although many have attributed the action to the late 1970s, early 1980s. But then again, Lowery’s film may exist outside of time. No smart phones or computers appear onscreen; however, if at any point one appeared, it wouldn’t feel out of place. The tight-knit community is composed of quaint, simple people. A few miles outside of town, a group of lumberkjacks clears forest for the local lumber mill, owned by Jack Meacham (Wes Bentley). Jack’s wife is Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a forest ranger well versed in the woods. They have a daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence); Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban) has been known for brash decisions; and Grace’s father (Robert Redford) is a well-known mystic, telling stories of a green dragon that lives in the woods north of town.

By the time we meet the Meachams, we have already met Pete (Oakes Fegley) in the film’s devastating prologue. Orphaned after a car accident that left his parents dead, the five-year-old Pete was rescued in the forest by a towering, furry, winged green dragon that can disappear at will. Pete names the dragon Elliot, after a dog in his favorite storybook, and for the next six years, Pete and Elliot live together in the woods. One morning as Elliot sleeps, Pete peers through the trees at the Meachams on their logging site. Natalie spots the boy, his hair overgrown and wearing only a loincloth. He’s eventually taken to town, where Grace learns how Pete has been alone for years, living a wildling lifestyle. Pete tells them about Elliot, which they assume is an imaginary friend, until he draws a picture of his dragon and it looks very similar to the yarns Grace’s father used to tell. At the same time, Gavin sees Elliot and, following his hillbilly instincts, gets a gun and a posse to catch himself a dragon.

Similar stories, such as E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, have been told before about a child who finds a magical new friend (The Water Horse: Legend of the Deep from 2007 also comes to mind). There’s always some adult who wants to capture the creature because he’s afraid; and there’s always another adult, usually a woman, who identifies with the child and helps free the creature. Lowery’s cast fills these archetypal roles well, with Howard offering warmth as Pete’s new motherly figure, while Redford resists turning his offbeat character into a wily old coot. Urban’s brashness propels the conflict, though he’s not irredeemably mean. But the heart of the picture comes from Fegley and his interactions with the CG-animated dragon. Fegley also handles solo moments, such as his pensive, far-off looks and desire to belong with the Meacham family, with a degree of soul beyond his years. And yet, he’s never without a boyish quality.

Elliot, meanwhile, is entirely convincing and believably inserted into the New Zealand locations, gorgeously captured by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli. Elliot looks as though Sully from Monsters, Inc. was dyed green and transformed into a dragon, insomuch that you want to pet his tangible-looking fur and give him a hug. The dragon’s expressive eyes, gestures, and growled vocal inflections lend enough personality to make him instantly lovable. Of course, he’s essentially a giant puppy with wings, and who isn’t a sucker for stories about a boy and his dog? Meanwhile, the score by Daniel Hart remains just behind the emotions of the characters, allowing the mood to take over. Lowery’s remake also resisted becoming a musical, instead filling the soundtrack with rustic, twangy folk songs by The Lumineers, Lindsey Stirling, Peggy Lee, Leonard Coen, and St. Vincent.

Whereas Disney has resolved to assault our senses in pictures like Alice Through the Looking Glass and its predecessor, Pete’s Dragon feels comparatively spare and without need of loud visual or aural embellishments. It’s as though a beautifully animated dragon had been placed inside a small indie drama. Nothing about the film feels forced or overstated, and even the most predictable of plot machinations feel authentic under Lowery’s capable direction. Indeed, Lowery and Halbrooks demonstrate an uncommon willingness to create a film that’s different, albeit familiar, and always with a prevailing sense of artistic integrity. In the end, their humanistic appreciation for a gentle, rather modest fantasy is heartening on very basic, effective levels. With an admirable formal integrity, Pete’s Dragon is a charmed film that taps into our imagination and reminds us that the natural world contains no end of magic, as long as we have a willingness to look.

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