Review: David Lowery's 'Pete's Dragon' Soars on Sweetness, Imagination
In 1977, Walt Disney Studios released Pete's Dragon, a live-action/animated musical about a boy and his dragon. The film, which was nominated for two Academy Awards, stars Mickey Rooney, Helen Reddy, Red Buttons, Shelley Winters, and Charlie Callas as the voice of the animated dragon. 40 years later, Disney is introducing a whole new generation to Seton I. Miller and S.S. Field's classic story. The remake, co-written and directed by filmmaker David Lowery (of Ain't Them Bodies Saints previously), retains the sweetness of Don Chaffey and Don Bluth's original film while reimagining the story for a modern audience.
In the Pacific Northwest in the ‘80s, forest ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard) finds a young boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) alone in the wilderness. Like The Jungle Book's Mowgli, Pete is a man-cub raised by animals. Instead of a pack of wolves, the boy is raised by a giant, green, fur-covered dragon named Elliott. With help from her father (Robert Redford), lumber mill owner Jack (Wes Bentley), and his daughter Natalie, (Oona Laurence of Southpaw, Bad Moms), Grace is determined to find out Pete's identity and the truth about his mysterious friend. Meanwhile, Gavin (Karl Urban), Jack's brother, plans to capture the mythical Millhaven Dragon so his loggers can clear the forest for continued development. With Elliott in danger, Pete leads his newfound family into the forest to rescue his best friend.
Elliott is a completely computer-generated creation that, like Mark Rylance's Big Friendly Giant in Steven Spielberg's The BFG, serves as a fully-fledged character with a massive heart. While dragons are often depicted as scaly, fire-spewing monsters, Elliott is like Clifford the Big Red Dog with wings. He's playful and innocent and, like Pete, is trying to find where he belongs. WETA, the special effects company behind The Lord of the Rings, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and The Jungle Book, has created a memorable – and lovable – character that endears itself to young and old alike.
As for the human performances, Howard, Redford, and Laurence do some lovely work here, but it's young Oakes Fegley (of This Is Where I Leave You) who provides a pitch-perfect turn as young Pete. You fear for his safety, but envy his freedom and purity. Experiencing the world through his eyes allows us – the older, disenchanted adults for which wonderment is rare – to experience the joy and magic of soaring through the air on a big, furry dragon. For me, it was a comparable to seeing The NeverEnding Story for the first time and dreaming of going on adventures with Falkor the luckdragon. The only off-note in the film's casting is Karl Urban as the villain. He's a great actor, but far too likable to play such a mean-spirited character.
Like E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Where the Wild Things Are, and Disney classics like Bambi, Pete's Dragon conveys important issues and complex feelings to children and helps prepare them to deal with loss in their own lives. As the late Roger Ebert once said, "the movies are like a machine that generates empathy." Watching a movie can be a cathartic experience, and these kinds of films are invaluable in helping us cope with the realities of life. For me, Pete's Dragon was extremely cathartic and impossibly sweet, a chance to reconnect with my younger self and escape the stresses of adulthood for a bit.
When it comes to movies, 2016 has been an extraordinary year for Disney with Zootopia, The Jungle Book, Captain America: Civil War, Finding Dory, The BFG, Pete's Dragon – and they've still got Doctor Strange, Moana, and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story to come! In a year filled with so many disappointments and downright disasters at the cineplex, is there another studio making big-budget spectacle on this level? As I write this, I realize how easy it is for internet trolls to create conspiracy theories about Disney paying off film critics, but the fact of the matter is, they're one of the few major studios that seems to care about giving their audience (of which critics are a part of) a satisfying moviegoing experience.
Pete's Dragon is a wonderful reminder that there is still magic in the world if you know where to look for it. A soulful, imaginative movie that delivers an emotional punch, Lowery has crafted a fun family adventure that compliments the original.
Adam's Rating: 4 out of 5
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