I don’t know if you ever watched Pete’s Dragon (1977) growing up, but I did, and I must admit that I was surprised when I heard, of all the classics, that this particular one was due to be remade as I always saw it as one of the lesser known of the Disney repertoire. I was skeptical, to be sure, given the surplus of live-action remakes pouring out from studios these days, most of them ruining childhood memories beyond comprehension, plus the lack of marketing for this film had me concerned that Disney didn’t have a whole lot of stock behind it. However, contrary to all of my misgivings, Pete’s Dragon is a truly wonderful and sincere film, unburdened with shot-to-shot retelling or reckless convolution of the same story, but a wholly re-invented one that delivers the same heartwarming, uplifting experience of the original and that is severely lacking in today’s family film, one that harks back to a golden age of simple, yet heartfelt storytelling.
Director David Lowery keeps this retelling straightforward and mostly similar to the original (save some embellishments). Set closer to modern day than it’s predecessor (maybe the 70’s, it never specifies), the core of story revolves around an orphaned boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) who, following a tragic accident that claims the lives of both his parents, gets lost in the woods and befriends Elliot, a furry green dragon with dog-like mannerisms. For the next six years the two become inseparable – building a home deep in the forest where they play games of hide-and-seek or just go for an epic joyride through the sky (no big deal) – until one day Pete runs into a forest ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who takes him back to town to stay with her family. Elliot – a myth of the forest to the locals thanks to Grace’s father, Meacham (Robert Redford) who claims to have once encountered the dragon – puts himself at risk of being seen as he goes in search Pete, and it isn’t long before he’s discovered and hunted by loggers (led by Karl Urban). The rest can remain unsaid, being a family film it’s easy to know where everything goes, as it never gets more complicated than is necessary.
Simplicity is really what pays off the most here. Instead of overstuffing the film with senseless CGI, over-the-top action sequences or dastardly villains with convoluted diabolical schemes, everything is relatively down-to-earth, leaving space for development and growth for it’s characters and their relationships, each and every one of which feels grounded and sincere. With that said, the action set-pieces feel equally grounded – the CGI used sparingly – and, again, feel like a homage to those fun family films of yester-year. The flight sequences are equally as enjoyable and well-developed, paired with a stirring score by Daniel Hart that also blends in folky songs that fit nicely into the film’s setting. The main conflict may be the only thing, if any, that is slightly lacking, though I did find myself thinking coming out of the movie that anything more complicated would only have dragged the story out needlessly.
The sole relationship between Pete and Elliot shines the most, which is as it should be, and though it takes a while for the story to start rolling, it’s only necessary to further establish the wonderful bond between these two characters. Newcomer Fegley does an incredible job considering he’s interacting with a CGI character for most of the duration, and he carries this movie fearlessly. As for Elliot, the CGI reincarnation of the lovable dragon works more than one could imagine for a bright green, furry dragon (the furriness, too, works surprisingly well). Still very much a dragon of intimidating scale and temperament (but only when Pete is in danger), the dog-like nuances given to the character makes him so much more relatable, especially to anyone who ever owned a dog. As for the supporting cast, everyone here is in top form and having just as much fun as a family film like this requires, and it shows. I don’t think Bryce Dallas Howard ever gets enough credit, but here she’s simply great and brings most of the emotional drive to the story. A scene wherein she and her family first meet Elliot, she perfectly embodies the wonderment of the moment and it pulls you right in, a sensation so often missed in films where creatures not of our world are introduced.
It’s a shame that this movie came to theaters so under-the-radar, because it’s truly an enjoyable film that the whole family can appreciate, especially given the abysmal summer of films we’ve had this year. I’d say that Disney has a new family classic on there hands, though it seems they’re not willing to make the most of it, but most credit should fall on David Lowery for keeping things sweet and simple. If you’ve been as let down as I have this summer, I’d implore you to check out Pete’s Dragon with the family, it’s an enjoyable, fun ride for everyone… to quote Redford’s Meacham “… it’s magic”.