Film Review – Pete’s Dragon
The remake train marches on, this time with Walt Disney Studios’ Pete’s Dragon (2016). I’ll admit to you, dear reader, that the original 1977 picture doesn’t hold any nostalgic value for me. It was primarily used by my elementary teachers to distract us students on the last day of school. While the gimmick of seeing a hand drawn dragon mixed with real life action was neat, it never solidified in my memories the way other Disney films have.
Which makes this update all the better. Here is an example of a good remake, where the premise is similar to the original but the execution isn’t handcuffed to fit a certain storyline. David Lowery, who directed the underrated Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) takes the lead while cowriting the screenplay with Toby Halbrooks. Lowery has a firm grasp of tone and style, instilling a sense of wonder and awe in almost every frame but never getting too schmaltzy with the material. This is the stuff Steven Spielberg was great at thirty-five years ago: taking small town Americana and juxtaposing it with mysterious, almost supernatural forces.
Oakes Fegley (a great name) takes the primary role of the young Pete. Early on, Pete experiences a tragic accident that leaves him orphaned. Alone and scared, things don’t look so good for our young hero until he runs into Elliott, a gigantic furry dragon. The depiction of Elliott is marvelous. With a head that calls to mind Falkor from The NeverEnding Story (1984) and the puppy-like mannerisms of Toothless from How to Train Your Dragon (2010), Elliott can be intimidating and charming in equal fashion. Lowery depicts the interaction between Pete and Elliott with keen observation. Despite Disney having a history of talking animals, Elliott never utters a word, and yet we understand what he’s thinking through his gestures. The computer animation renders Elliott well, especially in his eyes. We sense that both characters depend on each other to get through hard times. Their connection is cemented when Pete touches Elliott’s fur, turning it bright green.
The narrative throws us for a loop when it’s suggested that Elliott and Pete escape to live in the forest. How a kid barely able to tie his shoes and a dragon can learn to survive in the wilderness together is anyone’s guess – it’s one of those plot holes that you either go with or you don’t. It’s explained that they live together in relative peace for five years, in which Pete turns half feral. Their life gets upended when they run across a host of other humans: forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), her daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence), Grace’s husband Jack (Wes Bentley), Grace’s kooky father Meacham (Robert Redford), and Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban).
Once discovered, Pete tries adjusting back to civilized life with Grace taking him under her wing. Little actions and routines come as a challenge: brushing his teeth, listening to music, and reading. Even more pressing is how the relationship between Pete and Elliott is put to the test when Elliott’s existence becomes known. This is a universe in which dragons do exist, but to the community they are merely an old urban legend. Robert Redford plays a version of those conspiracy theorists whom everyone thinks is crazy but is actually on to something. He acts as a kind of bridge between the real and fantastical. When Elliott is revealed, many of the locals – particularly Gavin – want to capture him for financial gain.
There are some really sweet moments. Sure, there are those big sweeping set pieces when Elliott takes off into the sky, or during a chase scene down a freeway. But the moments that stuck were the little ones. Lowery is very good at amplifying small emotional sequences. The way Elliott gingerly nudges a backpack toward Pete as a sign of friendship, how Elliott holds Pete in his paws oh so carefully, or the way Elliott changes color to reflect his feelings – it all plays off convincingly. Lowery is also adept at lightening the tone when needed. He is clearly aware of the absurd nature of a dragon living close to modern society, showing it in the funny reactions of the characters. Could you imagine sitting in your office just to turn around and witness a big green dragon fly by your window?
If there’s anything that weighs Pete’s Dragon down, it’s the thin plotting and two-dimensional characters. The main crux involves Pete and Elliott being separated and their struggle to reconnect. It takes awhile for this to get going, which is strange given that the main storyline takes place in the span of about a day or two. An hour into the runtime and it felt like the plot was still in the first act. All of the characters are simply defined. The good guys are inherently good, and the bad guys…well, they’re not really that bad to begin with. Don’t look here if you’re searching dynamic character development.
But the strength lies in Lowery’s ability to portray a sense of magic. This was a lovely experience that had almost everything you could ask for in a family picture: adventure, fun, and just the right amount of danger. In a time where reboots and rehashes produce nothing but cinematic junk, it’s refreshing to see one done right.