Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Directed by David Lowery
Written by David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks

Having no familiarity with the original film, I cannot make an argument for or against a remake of this past Disney property, but I don’t really have to because it would appear Disney’s plan is to go out and commission remakes of all of their past successes, even the littler ones like Pete’s Dragon from 1977. Originally a live action film with an animated dragon inserted to tell the tale, Pete’s Dragon certainly seemed an unlikely candidate for one of Disney’s remakes, but the company brought on writer/director David Lowery, whose debut film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, while not impressing this reviewer, did create some considerable buzz on the indie circuit at its release. A family, Disney follow-up seems an odd choice, but Lowery’s sensibilities and visual flare suit the material extremely well, making Pete’s Dragon a pleasant summer surprise.

Reworking the original plotlines of Pete’s Dragon, David Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks transform the core story of an orphan boy and his dragon into forest adventure as opposed to a seaside escapade. After a tragic car crash in the remote wilderness, which kills both his parents, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is left to his own devices in the forest until he encounters a friendly dragon he names Elliot. Living together peaceably for a few years, the friends are disturbed when a logging company ventures deeper into the forest than ever before. Pete is skiddish at first after encountering a friendly park ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), whose father (Robert Redford) has told stories of dragons in the woods before. But when Grace tries to find out more about Pete, one of the loggers (Karl Urban) sets out to hunt the dragon before Pete, Grace and her father can stop him.

Admittedly apprehensive at first, especially given the very cheesy and dated look of the original film upon a casual Google search, I was quite taken with this film by the time the end credits rolled. As all Disney films seem to manage to accomplish, Pete’s Dragon succeeds with its heart right at the center of the film. While there are certainly elements in the film which hold it back from rivaling The Jungle Book from earlier this year, Pete’s Dragon is a good example of how to rework material to tell a faithful, yet original story, and to do so with a tremendous amount of care and heart. Oakes Fegley’s central performance carries quite a bit of the emotional heft of the film, surpassing Neel Sethi from The Jungle Book and even evoking Jacob Tremblay from last year’s Room at times, in both performance and look. Robert Redford is nice and sentimental in a small role as well, suiting the material and tone of the film quite well.

Everything I have to say about this film is above average. I would hesitate to call anything about it great. It’s not great. But the pieces really fall together for Lowery, who carefully sets out his story and delivers it with nice performances, nice cinematography and great character design for Elliot, whose cute and welcoming look helps communicate the loving relationship between he and Pete. The film really hammers home some of it’s theme in pretty obvious fashion, showing Pete and Elliot’s treehouse uprooted amidst the loggers cutting trees down too deep into the forest to drive home both the film’s more environmentally leaning points as well as its xenophobia themes, proving that not everything foreign and unknown is necessarily bad. The idea of family is also played at throughout, with the relationships of Grace and her father, Pete and Elliot, as well as Grace and her step daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence), and done so nicely, showing family is what we make it, is who we love and protect.

Pete’s Dragon will do okay at the box office. Look, I don’t expect it to become a box office smash, but it should do quite well for itself among a summer season of diminishing returns. I’m not sure many adults my age or younger will remember much about the original, and children certainly will have never heard of it, but by forging its own path, with its own story, in its own environment, David Lowery has managed to show great promise for his future projects while resurrecting one of Disney’s forgotten properties. I was a little surprised by just how much I enjoyed this film. It’s pacing is perhaps its greatest trait, maintaining an intrigue and interest throughout, never hitting a lull as it laconically delivers a heartfelt, and at times moving, narrative.

*** – Very Good

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