When 2016 is said and done, Pete’s Dragon will be a pleasant surprise in an otherwise bust-worthy year for blockbusters. With no affinity felt towards Don Chaffey’s 1977 live-action cartoon, Disney had a clean slate with this critic, and boy did they capitalize. Gone are the musical numbers and more unrealistic aspects, in favor of a touching familial dramedy about a boy, his dragon and their tremendous bond.
This has been a year where critics and viewers seem to really be lapping up Disney’s Kool-Aid, but when it tastes this good (think Strawberry Kiwi laced with kid-friendly cocaine), there’s a damn fine reason why. Quiet your conspiracy talk – Disney is riding one of the craziest studio hot-streaks in cinema history (Shhh, Tomorrowland never happened), and that’s not because of bribery or bias.
Director David Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks stay true to Disney’s original dragon tale, about a boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his fire-breathing protector. After an automobile accident claims the lives of Pete’s parents, he ends up living treehouse-style in a forest for six years with Elliot (his very real, very lovable dragon best friend).
Together, the two abide by the rules of nature, until a Ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) stumbles upon the feral child. She takes Pete in and tries to civilize his wild soul, but while Elliot is alone, Grace’s future husband’s brother – Gavin (Karl Urban) – sedates the dragon and brings his trophy to town. Thus begins a breakout mission for Pete and Elliot, who get a little help from their new family.
You might be wondering how an animated mythical creature and a young, howling boy necessitate soulful, loving reactions, yet the chemistry between Pete and Elliot flows without a lick of conversation. Elliot is essentially a towering, green puppy-dog who bounds around excitedly and loves to goof off. Pete challenges his furry friend (yes, this dragon dons a lush fur coat), but in moments of peace, we can feel how these two kindred spirits adore one another beyond Earthly comprehension. Family is family no matter what shape and size they come in, and Pete’s Dragon never eases off the thematic importance of the only “F” word that truly matters.
More importantly, Elliot looks the part and maneuvers fluidly as a large, sweet behemoth who can’t yet comprehend its own strength. Fuzzy clumps of hair dance in the tiniest gusts of wind, calling back to Disney’s visual triumphs in Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. Oakes Fegley finds no challenge when acting against a 100% green-screen character, interacting seamlessly with Elliot’s pouty eyes, signifying grunts and sky-spanning flights.
In no way am I a dragon enthusiast, but their sincere on-screen warmth had me tearing up without warning at the most unexpected moments. Pete runs into Elliot’s arms, Elliot catches him and falls clumsily, I cry – no explanation needed beyond a touching relationship between a boy and his fluffy green dragon. Feelings of acceptance and mysticism done right, played through a dynamic that breaks the bonds of wonder.
That said, Pete’s Dragon doesn’t exactly reach for anything super-ambitious when it comes to children’s fables. Musical accompaniment builds a more backwoods-country lore – furthered by the vast nothingness of wooded landscapes – but Pete’s adventure plays out like so many before. After the quick (and jarring) death of Pete’s parents, we’re treated to an unsupervised romp around the forest with Elliot, followed by the interference of man, and our inevitable desire to destroy anything too pure or unknown. Pete fights for his dragon, there’s a brief, predictable altercation, and families get to hug each other a little harder. Positive, share-worth storytelling from Lowery and his team that’s comfortable while not revolutionary.
This same feeling of comfort coincides with most performances, but it becomes hard to root for any “civil” character from the bunch. Karl Urban’s Gavin isn’t necessarily a bad guy, but his need to claim Elliot as a trophy makes us hate his guts. His brother (and Grace’s future wife), played by Wes Bentley, runs the logging company Gavin operates under, so some of the blame shifts his way just by proxy. At least Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford play a sympathetic father/daughter tandem that smartly utilizes Redford to a lesser degree than Dallas Howard, as the lead actress connects with Pete on a maternal, more homely level. Although, the young Oona Laurence steals the show as Pete’s child counterpart, and forms a friendship ten times more worthwhile than any of the adult characters in the film (a film built for children, subsequently carried by children).
Pete’s Dragon is more than just an accessible reboot; it’s a whimsical love-note to childhood and never letting “the magic” die. Folksy artfulness, dynamite visuals and a larger-than-life beating heart propels David Lowery’s soothing bedtime story through sun-shine-y skies, while he whittles something that’s far more than “just another remake.”
As Redford says, after gazing upon Elliot for the first time, all he could feel was a magic that changed his outlook on life. In that same mentality, Lowery’s romanticized adoration of youth aims to deliver the same kind of invigorated feeling. We know dragons aren’t real, but for an hour-and-a-half, Elliot feels like a part of our lives – a part we don’t want to let go of, and thanks to David Lowery, a part we might rediscover for the first time in far too long.
I'm not sure who begged for a Pete's Dragon reboot, but I'm glad they did so Disney could show how to properly revamp an existing property.