I’ve been a hardcore Disney fan for a long time, but that doesn’t mean I automatically love everything the Mouse has produced. Specifically, I’ve never been a fan of the original Pete’s Dragon, the 1977 live-action/animation hybrid. While I appreciated the design and animation of Elliott, the film’s titular dragon, I found the whole affair too silly for my tastes topped off with forgettable songs. So of Disney’s recent spate of modern, live-action remakes (Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book so far, with Beauty and the Beast due next year), I was by far most enthusiastic about Pete’s Dragon, which I felt was most in need of an update. I’ve generally enjoyed all of the films in Disney’s latest trend so I’ve come to have high expectations, and Pete’s Dragon didn’t disappoint. But what I wasn’t prepared for was its beautiful simplicity, the stillness and subtlety with which it tells its story, or just what a breath of fresh air it is.
5-year-old Pete is on an adventure with his parents, driving though a forest, when a deer causes their car to roll over, killing his parents. Pete, alone and scared, makes his way into the woods, where he is rescued by an enormous, green, furry dragon, whom he names Elliott after a character in a book he was reading when his parents were killed. Six years later, Pete lives in the woods with Elliott always by his side, spending their days splashing through the river, soaring over the treetops, or playing in the woods. But everything changes for Pete when he comes across Grace, a park ranger from the local town of Millhaven. Grace is engaged to Jack, who runs a logging business with his brother Gavin, while her father spends his days telling the local children about the time he came face-to-face with the legendary Millhaven dragon.
Pete, investigating the logging operation that is encroaching on his home, is spotted by Jack’s daughter Natalie, and is captured and taken to the hospital to be checked out. He attempts to escape back to the woods, but is comforted by Grace, who offers to let him spend the night with their family and hopes that he’ll tell her the secret of how he survived so many years alone in the woods. Meanwhile Gavin and his crew hear strange noises coming from the area around their logging site and attempt to go hunting, only to end up fleeing back to town believing they’ve seen a dragon. With the prospect of an imminent arrival from social services to take Pete away and Gavin’s desire to make a name for himself by capturing a dragon, the question becomes whether Pete’s new friends will believe him in time to help him save Elliott before the secret gets out.
There are so many different ways a Pete’s Dragon remake could have gone. It could have been a bombastic epic, with thrilling action sequences of effects-heavy dragon carnage. It could have been a kid-oriented comedy in the vein of Alvin and the Chipmunks, or even the original film. But instead they chose a different and more unusual approach. Pete’s Dragon is peaceful, calm, and simple, but never simplistic or shallow. There are no unnecessary sideplots, no jokes thrown in to pander at a particular demographic, and most importantly no showboating or grandstanding. It’s a straightforward story told beautifully. It’s never in a rush to get to the next exciting sequence or big moment, but instead it lets its scenes and characters breathe. It’s a decidedly old-fashioned type of filmmaking, and I mean that in the best possible way. Movies in this style generally don’t get made today, and when they do they’re certainly not major studio remakes of classic family films.
At times, Pete’s Dragon feels like it’s a bit lacking in something to say. It has an environmental and conservationist message, but it stops short of driving the theme home, preferring to find the middle ground between the forest and the loggers. It touches on matter of faith and belief, but doesn’t exactly know where to go with that either. And I could see how some people would find it unengaging, as it’s not a film that tries desperately to grab your attention. Overall it feels like the script could have used just a little more polishing or punching up, just to have slightly more memorable dialogue, but if that would have meant sacrificing the film’s unique sensibilities than I’d rather things stay just as they are.
Writer/Director David Lowery enhances this feeling with cinematically at every turn. Pete’s Dragon feels like it was shot entirely on location (it was filmed in New Zealand), and it really captures the essence of the simple act of being out in nature and feeling connected with the Earth. Everything from the sounds to the way the light filters through the trees comes off completely naturally, and reminds me of days spent in the woods in my youth. Lowery also sets the movie in a nebulous time period somewhere in the 80s, without cell phones, the internet, and the constant distractions of modern life. I can’t even remember seeing a television in Grace and Jack’s home. The film’s music in particular helps to drive its relaxed pace home, from Daniel Hart’s score with its guitars tinged with a slight sense of melancholy to the folksy song written for the film that sings of the legend of the Millhaven Dragon.
Lowery is helped along with a solid cast with some surprisingly big names. Relative newcomer Oakes Fegley leads the way as Pete, bringing a stillness you rarely see from child actors. Fegley spends long stretches of time sharing the screen with the CG Elliott, often with little dialogue to help things along (Elliott doesn’t speak), but he’s able to bring out Pete’s emotions and to sell the believability of Elliott. Bryce Dallas Howard brings a maternal warmth to Grace, along with a fierce protectiveness of nature. Karl Urban makes Gavin, the film’s villain, seem less like a caricature than I would have thought possible, never exaggerated even when faced with the unimaginable prospect of capturing a dragon. Oona Laurence is charming and friendly as Natalie, who helps the family form a connection with Pete, but Wes Bentley fails to make much of an impression as Jack. Robert Redford, on the other hand, steals the show, breathing life and energy into a story that might otherwise have felt a little slow and bringing depth to the proceedings, in addition to adding a sense of mystery and wonder to the events that unfold.
And then there’s Elliott. The enormous dragon has been the subject of much scrutiny, particularly among the Disney community, with regards to its design. And for sure, he’s definitely a long way from the medieval dragons we’re used to seeing onscreen. He also bears only a fleeting resemblance to the animated Elliott from the 1977 film. Instead, this Elliott feels more like a spirit of the forest. The way he moves and acts recalls to mind a wolf or a dog, particularly his protectiveness of Pete, but he can be both more fearsome or more gentle than either depending on the moment. And beyond his basic shape, a few traits from the original film have carried over, including a certain clumsiness and the ability to turn invisible (which is cleverly rendered). For being such a big visual effect, and so central to the movie, Elliott is never flashy or attention seeking. He’s a marvelous creation, believable and realistic but still dreamy and slightly imaginary, and at certain moments is definitely capable of wowing the audience, but his real power comes from his connection to Pete and his place in the story.
Partway through Pete’s Dragon there’s a scene where Grace goes to have a conversation with her father. Pete has drawn a picture of Elliott to show them what his friend looks like, and it’s triggered something in her memory. She spent her whole life listening to the fanciful tale of her father’s encounter in the woods with the Millhaven dragon, of how he had his rifle snatched from his hands and just barely escaped with his life, but now she wants to know the truth. Her father, reminding her to have an open mind, tells a beautiful story about coming eye-to-eye with a magnificent creature, and how the powerful connection he felt between them was like magic. It’s a beautiful scene that conjures vivid images without ever leaving they tiny room and the discussion between father and daughter. It touches on the power of nature, our connection with the world around us, and the importance of belief, and it’s one of the film’s most emotion-filled scenes. Yet it does all of this simply and camly, as it shows that the quiet moments can be just as strong as the loud ones. It’s the scene that best embodies my feelings about Pete’s Dragon as a whole. It is good and important, but also necessary, to take time to slow down and appreciate what’s around us, and it takes a very special movie to capture that spirit this beautifully.