“Pete’s Dragon” returns wonder to family movies.
Director David Lowery’s remake of the 1977 Disney musical ditches the songs and slapstick and spins a gentle tale of friendship, family, healing and faith. Told with beauty and charm, it’s one of the best family films in a year filled with great ones, and a reminder that Disney knows the key to effective remakes — hiring directors who can find a story’s soul.
Lowery relocates the tale from a Maine fishing seaport to a lumber town in the Pacific Northwest. Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a young boy left alone in the woods after car accident. He’s taken in and protected by Elliott, a furry green dragon who has become lost in the woods, away from his family. The two live together in the forest for six years before park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) finds Pete and brings him home, where she lives with her fiancee (Wes Bentley) and daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence). For the first time, Pete experiences life with a family while Elliott wonders if he’s been forgotten. There’s also a lumberer (Karl Urban) who stumbles upon Elliott, and Grace’s father, Meacham (Robert Redford), who once encountered the dragon in the forest.
The elements are there for a rip-roaring adventure that pits Elliott and Pete against the lumbermen who want to clear the forest and harm the dragon. But Lowery’s story (he wrote the screenplay with Toby Halbrooks) shies away from loud action scenes in favor of quiet drama and gentle wonder. Even the car accident that opens the film is portrayed as almost beautiful, focused squarely on Pete as the world slowly spins upside down. Elliott’s not a ferocious, fire-breathing dragon (save for one moment) but more like a giant dog; there’s a great stretch early in the film that shows the two romping through the woods that captures their carefree fun; when Pete dives off a cliff and Elliott catches him and flies off, it’s a moment of pure elation. I suspect many kids are going to leave with hopes of finding their own dragon.
Lowery’s feature debut, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” was acclaimed for its gorgeous, almost Malick-like cinematography. Even though he’s doing a big Disney family film, Lowery doesn’t sacrifice the film’s look. Working with DP Bojan Bazelli, he crafts a gorgeous, earthy film, taking advantage of his setting’s (Australia playing the Pacific Northwest) thick forests and foggy suburbs. He dwells on details like a knife whittling away at wood or a crayon coloring on paper. His camera moves freely, bounding with energy when Pete and Elliott play and then capturing the overwhelming confusion and wonder as Pete first gets lost in the town. Coupled with a quiet folk soundtrack, the film feels more like a fable and less like the over-caffeinated action comedy most family films settle for being.
He gets a strong performance out of young Fegley as Pete. Not only does the actor have to spend most the film acting alongside a giant CG creation, Fegley also has to navigate Pete’s tricky emotional journey. This is a young boy who has been on his own for so long that he doesn’t even understand the concept of family, nor does he have a way to articulate his feelings. Fegley captures the conflict in a scene where Pete, away from Elliott and being chased down by strangers, lets out a howl of frustration. He also captures the budding joy the young boy experiences as he’s welcomed into a family. I appreciate that the film never pits Howard and Bentley’s characters against each other over what they should do about Pete. They simply welcome and embrace him. While brief mention of handing him over to social services is made, the film never turns it into too much of a conflict. Instead, Lowery’s story is about a family welcoming a new member, and the kindness shown to a boy in need.
The big draw of the 1977 film was the merging of live action and animation; the film was one of Disney’s efforts to follow in the footsteps of “Mary Poppins.” Elliott was a cartoon character, sweet and kind of buffoonish. Nearly 40 years later, CG creations are commonplace, but it’s still surprising how much of a character Elliott becomes. The work still astonishes; it feels like you can reach out and touch his fur. Elliott’s less anthropomorphized than he was in the original; he’s like a giant dog, bounding with energy and spirit. But there’s also an element where he’s less of Pete’s protector and more of his peer. Elliott was separated from his family as well, and Pete’s all he has. Much of his journey in the film is trying to track down his friend, and there’s a moment where he spots Pete cozied up with his new family where the animators capture Elliot’s confusion and heartbreak. It’s a remarkable CG performance and I have a hunch that many kids will see Elliot as a real character, the same way I grew up viewing E.T. as real.
The film has a message of conservation quietly woven through, but it’s not overbearing. More effective is its message of faith, and how we handle our encounters with the inexplicable. Urban’s character is a frustrated businessman who lives in his brother’s shadow (Bentley’s character is his brother and I wish the film had delved into their conflict a bit more). When he encounters the dragon, his initial reaction is fear; he takes his men and goes hunting. But when they capture the dragon (spoiler?), he changes his mind. He wants to find a way to control Elliot and capitalize on him. It’s a contrast with Meacham, who stumbled upon the dragon years earlier and entertains the neighborhood kids with his tall tales. Meacham’s life was changed by seeing Elliott, but in a positive way. It gave him a sense of peace and he accepted the wonder; at one point he tells Grace that the way he views his entire life was changed by that encounter, a description that made me think of CS Lewis’ “Meditation in a Toolshed.” It’s an interesting theme for a kids’ movie that I think many adults could stand to wrestle with: when we encounter something greater than us that we can’t explain, do we try to fight it or control it? Or do we simply enjoy it, letting it wash over and amaze us?
The film stumbles slightly as it shifts gears for the requisite third act chase, although I appreciate that no character is turned into a villain in it. But the plot mechanics feel a bit forced and obligatory, and it sacrifices the building emotion for an action sequence. It’s not badly handled and I understand it’s kind of necessary in these films, but I really wish that the film could have maintained its sense of wonder and magic throughout.
But it’s a nitpick. Overall, “Pete’s Dragon” is a strong, well-made family film. Kids will love the dragon and the adventures, and I think adults will pick up on the film’s deeper themes and well-handled emotion. David Lowery handles the jump from indie films to features without sacrificing his personality as a director or getting lost in the studio machine. “Pete’s Dragon” is a Disney film that still feels personal and meaningful, and that’s kind of miraculous.