Director: David Lowery
Screenwriter: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks
Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios
Rated PG | 103 Minutes
Release Date: August 12, 2016
Looking at David Lowery‘s Pete’s Dragon, you might not have known that it was based on the 1977 Disney film of the same name. In fact, the only similarity that the two films share between each other is that there is boy whose friend just so happens to be a real live dragon. Normally these reimagined stories would involve contemporary tweaks while staying true to the source material. Just look at The Jungle Book or Cinderella. But Lowery didn’t set out to that with Pete’s Dragon. Instead, his film deconstructs the idea of a remake of a Disney classic, and he turns it into something that resembles those childhood bedtime stories that your parents would read to you.
The film actually opens with a rather cold intro that sees Pete’s parents traveling on some remote road in the Pacific Northwest. Dad’s at the wheel, while mom helps Pete read a book about a boy and his pet dog, named Elliot, going on an adventure. Suddenly, the car swerves to avoid a deer, flipping over and killing the parents. The only survivor is Pete, now an orphan, and he is saved from being eaten by savage wolves by a giant cuddly green dragon, whom he names Elliot. Six years later, Pete (now played by Oakes Fegley) is a feral boy who has gained the full trust of Elliot, so much so that he knows that the dragon will save him if he willingly jumps off a cliff. Their relationship is almost familial. Everything is fine until he meets Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), a forest ranger, who has heard all the small town tales of a dragon that her father Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) told her. Eventually, trouble starts to brew when Gavin (Karl Urban) starts to believe that there is something out in the woods.
Pete’s Dragon is hardly the first film to tell the story about a boy and his larger-than-life friend that adults cannot comprehend. Unlike most dragons which are scary and fearsome on the outside, Elliot possesses the look and feel of a household pet, but has the capacity to defend its friend. While the film does follow a formula that is all too familiar, it also shows a lot of restraint in the way it tells the story. Our characters’ concerns come from a genuine place and because of the spot-on casting, it is far more believable even with something as magical and unbelievable as a dragon.
Even if this is a big budget studio film, Lowery’s vision isn’t lost in the big budget void. In a lot of ways, the director lets the cinematography be a character. There are sweeping camera shots of the beautiful New Zealand landscape, enough of it that takes your breath away. Nowadays, seeing that much real-life forestry is almost as rare as seeing a dragon itself. Lowery made sure that the film had as many practical shots as possible, and left very little room for green screen or big budget CGI. Again, a good movie should have visuals to tell the tale; there needs to be great characters and genuine stakes for the audience to be fully engaged in the story.
These characters are played wonderfully by a spot-on cast. Much of the film’s aforementioned restraint comes from Fegley’s quiet performance as Pete, a boy who has very little understanding of what it is like to live in a civilized world since his only interaction comes from living with a dragon in the forest for six years. Howard’s Grace takes care of the boy in a clear motherly way. Though she isn’t a mother herself, she longs to have a child, and once see lays eyes on Pete, there is an instant connection. These two might be kindred spirits, as both of them share a sense of adventure and exploration. And then there is the way that the kids hang onto every word that Redford says when he’s telling a story. The kids are just hooked and they almost want to believe that a dragon is real. You could tell that his stories resonate when the film’s antagonist, Gavin, asks his younger brother, Jack (Wes Bently), if he remembers the stories that Mr. Meachman told them.
But therein lies the weakness of the movie. It’s clear that Gavin believes in developing and deforestation, but his motivations take a backseat. In fact, it is a bit unnecessary to have when Gavin moves on from developing the small town by means of deforestation to hunting dragons. While the character doesn’t do anything to ruin the film’s fluidity, he really doesn’t do much to move the story itself; he is only there to be the antagonist.
Despite that minor flaw, the real stars of Pete’s Dragon are the kids. The film is told through their eyes, though it never dumbs itself down or insults the audience by making it too childish. There are stakes that are grounded in reality, and even though the dragon may throw that off a bit because of its a fantastical character, the idea that it has the personality of a household pet makes the film that much more grounded. However, our older characters are less inclined to believe that there is such a thing as dragon living among them. Grace, who has been combing the woods, is probably the least-likely to believe such a thing exists, even if her father wants to believe in the magic of a dragon that exists and keeps that thought alive through storytelling. Not to mention that characters express genuine joy and sorrow, making it that much more real.
Elliot is almost too real. Brought to life through the powers of WETA Digital, the cast’s interaction with the non-existent character really brings the dragon to life and sends the message that one should never lose their imagination to age or maturity. The idea of a dragon being real even draws a connection to our characters who hope and dream that they themselves can have a family they are so desperately longing for. Yeah, it may be a not-so-subtle metaphor, but the idea is that these themes can be uplifting for audiences of all ages.