There is an eye-rolling moment in the first few minutes of just about every recent live-action remake of a beloved Disney classic, be it Cinderella, The Jungle Book, or David Lowery‘s Pete’s Dragon, where you think “Ugh, they’re going to make this a somber, unendurable affair, devoid of most of what gave the originals their charm.” In the latter movie, which opens August 12, that moment comes right away with an incredibly sad opening two scenes. But it soon takes a sharp upturn in heart string-pulling like a dragon doing a flyover.
I’m not nearly as familiar with the 1977 original Pete’s Dragon as I was with the other Disney flicks met with high-profile remakes, but I knew the basics: an orphaned kid lives out in the forest with his friend, an animated dragon. That’s essentially all I remember, and that’s really all you need to know about this new one. A cursory perusal of the original’s plot tells me it was much more complicated than you’d think. The 2016 film is almost anti-complication, eschewing what would have been nominal character backstory of less interesting characters and focusing more on emotion and conveying the feeling of growing up, loss, and family.
Pete (played by the improbably named Oakes Fegley) is a recently-orphaned boy who for sure would have died out in the woods outside a small milling community if he hadn’t been met by a giant, green, furry dragon, whom Pete names Elliot after the little puppy in his favorite book. After years of living on their own, Pete happens upon a forest ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) who is getting hitched to the head of the town’s logging company (Wes Bentley), whose brother (Karl Urban) consistently breaks agreements in order to fell more trees by milling further into the forest. Pete meets Bentley’s daughter (Oona Laurence) and helps her when she hurts herself in the forest, but he eventually gets knocked out and Howard takes him to the hospital.
From here, Pete tries to return to the woods to get back to Elliot while also realizing he’s missed out on a lot in six years (duh) and maybe family isn’t a bad thing. While that’s going on, Elliot is trying to find Pete and Karl Urban is trying to catch the dragon and become the talk of the town/state/country. Also, Robert Redford plays the father of Howard’s character who’s been talking for years about the dragon he met one time. Maybe he’s not so crazy after all, huh?
From a very basic screenplay level, Lowery and Toby Halbrooks’ script leaves out a lot in terms of its characters. We’re not really given much more than a couple passing lines to tell us that Urban and Howard don’t get along, and it’d be easy to write-off Urban as just a regular villain were it not for a few moments of him clearly caring about the children’s well-being. He still gets more character development than Bentley’s character, who is basically just ambulatory eyeballs sitting in a beard that has developed the ability to drive a car. And the character development we do get for Redford and Howard is there and necessary but quite brief.
That being said, it became clear watching it that Lowery isn’t concerned with usual narrative trends for family movies. Pete’s Dragon is about the heartbreak and fear and uncertainty and unbridled joy that comes with growing up and having to say goodbye to some people to say hello to others. And in a major way, the movie’s also about how a child’s best friend often is their pet and not another human being. The way Elliot is rendered onscreen is very effective to this point. He’s big and imposing to be sure, but is undeniably warm and feels like a huge dog or cat. The fur is so realistic you know exactly what it feels like, and as seemingly superficial as that is, recognizing Elliot as an actual, tangible, soulful being is integral to our understanding and appreciation of the film.
The movie really shines when Pete and Elliot are being the best of friends. There’s unspoken warmth in both of those characters which works enormously better, it has to be said, than the moments of Howard being maternal toward Pete. It’s a movie that wouldn’t work at all if Pete and Elliot weren’t believable together. But they are, and it really, really works. Only a truly cynical person wouldn’t find this touching and shed a bit of a tear.
I will forever applaud Disney for allowing this type of adaptation of their cartoon dragon movie, one that brings real heart and emotion to what was originally a silly runaround with some songs in it. They’re really allowing the directors of these movies to put their own stamp on the material, and it’s very impressive.
A few duff moments, and one of Karl Urban’s more mugging-filled performances, Pete’s Dragon is a satisfying and touching family adventure drama.