Pete’s Dragon (2016)
I have no personal love for the original 1977 Pete’s Dragon. I thought you, dear reader, deserved to know this morsel. I never felt a sense of wonder from the animated dragon creating mischief while a town tried to rid itself of an orphan and a bunch of hillbillies sang an ode to child abuse (it was a different time?). Disney has gotten into the self-cannibalizing habit of dipping into its own past and remaking its animated hits for a new generation of moviegoers. It worked splendidly with last spring’s Jungle Book, and the new version of Pete’s Dragon is further proof that when Disney aligns the right artist with a vision and gives them latitude to express that vision, rewards are generously reaped. This is a delightful, heartwarming, and enchanting summer movie that got me crying.
Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a young boy who lives in the wooded reservations with one very special friend, a furry green dragon he has named Eliot. He’s been living in the woods for six years after Eliot rescued him following a car accident that claimed the lives of Pete’s parents. One day a park ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), comes across Pete and brings him back into town for medical evaluation. He’s a mystery child, a bit feral, and demands to return home into the woods. Grace incites Pete into her home and her family, but there are worries about the boy acclimating to society. All the while Eliot is looking for his best friend and mournful that they might have to part ways after all.
Pete’s Dragon is a simple story but this is not a detriment to its ultimate effectiveness. Rather the filmmakers take care to treat this childhood fable with enough heart and earnest emotion that the movie feels fully developed to its aims. The characters and their journeys aren’t exactly revolutionary, but I didn’t mind at all. This is an old-fashioned family film told without irony and set in a nondescript past that adds to the universal appeal of its message. It’s elegantly simple but there are poignant themes running under the surface, namely an unmistakable level of melancholy with Pete’s process of growing up. This feels like Disney’s version of Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, a movie that examines the hard but necessary transitions of childhood and the acceptance of a sort of loss among the fantastic. This movie isn’t consumed with a dour interpretation of childhood as an oppressively hellish existence of misunderstanding (I didn’t connect with Where the Wild Things Are if you couldn’t tell) but it does acknowledge a loneliness of being absent a family to call your own. Pete’s life with Eliot is filled with boyish excitement and adventure but he knows he can’t hold onto that world much longer, and this realization magnifies the remaining time with Eliot. From start to finish, Pete’s’ Dragon is bursting with warmth and resonant emotions.
I was unprepared for the emotional wallop that this film delivered. Not since perhaps Pixar’s Up has a movie so effectively triggered my sympathies in its opening ten minutes. In a beautiful yet tastefully restrained sequence, Pete becomes an orphan and is rescued by Eliot, and the vulnerability and compassion of this moment already had me tearing up. Full disclosure: I’m a sucker for the “boy and his dog” stories, and while Eliot is a special dragon by design he is, at his core, a rendition of man’s best friend. Their relationship is one of love, companionship, and protection. They’re a pack. When Eliot spots Pete cozy in a family house, he’s crestfallen but accepts that a placement in the human world is where Pete belongs. And then at the end after a fraught situation, Pete instinctively runs to Eliot and leaps into his arms, and Eliot takes him in, holding him dearly, and it was at this point that I couldn’t stop the flow of tears even if I wanted to. Happy tears, people. The takeaway of the film is the formative bonds of family and the need to reach out for that nourishing companionship. While it’s highly emotional, it’s all earned and avoids cheap maudlin, manipulative theatrics, short of one extended sequence of Eliot’s capture.
I never would have expected such an old-fashioned yet preternaturally charming movie from the team responsible for the somber indie Western Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Director/co-writer David Lowery is locked-in with its goals and finds ways to build its characters through small, cumulative actions. The film also has a marvelous sense of place as get a strong feel for everyday life in this foggy Pacific Northwest environment. Contributing to that sense is a terrific soundtrack of low-key folk songs that thrum with a lovely homespun gentleness that taps into the earthy magic of its setting. The score strings-heavy by Daniel Hart is perfectly attuned to the emotional rhythms of the film without becoming overbearing. The photography is often gorgeous and the editing near invisible with how effortlessly it presents its story with room to breathe. There’s a standout sequence that highlights just how well all of these individual elements come together to form a greater whole. Pete escapes from the town’s hospital and desperately runs outside. He is dazed by the activity of the modern world and the geography of the town, and the residents of this town are just as dazed about Pete, a wild child exploring his alien surroundings. He hops aboard a school bus and the children inside are amazed at Pete’s daredevil antics. The chase sequence is set to the Lumineers’ “Nobody Knows” and it builds upon the sense of discovery, community, and mutual awe. It’s a wonderful sequence that develops patiently.
Part of the success of the movie is also due to the skill and implementation of the special effects team. Eliot is a cuddly creature you want to take home with you yet he can still be intimidating under the right circumstances. He’s on screen a lot but his magical qualities don’t diminish. This is one highly communicative dragon and it’s easy to empathize with him (those exquisitely emotive canine eyes help). There’s a tenderness to him that convinces the audience early on to take a journey with Eliot and see what happens next.
The human specimens are heartfelt and enjoyable as well. Ostensibly the main character, his name is in the title after all, the role of Pete rests on the tiny shoulders of actor Oakes Fegley, and he aces the part, tapping into the rougher, wilder edge while also selling the dramatic moments in a clear relation to his interpretation of the character. The next main character is Howard (Jurassic World) and she’s quite good. She gives a maternal performance that doesn’t go overboard while still allowing her to come across as an independent, thinking woman with her own desire for proof of the fantastical. She has several tender moments with Fegley. The actors all perform ably. Even West Bentley (TV’s American Horror Story) works well in the movie, and when was the last time that could be said? Karl Urban (Star Trek Beyond) is enjoyably hammy as the villain who’s not much of a villain. I wish Redford (Captain America: The Winter Soldier) was in more scenes because his grandfatherly presence is so enjoyable to watch and he so easily slides into the part.
Disney is two-for-two when it comes to 2016 live-action remakes of its old catalogue, and if The Jungle Book and now Pete’s Dragon are any indication, then bring on the remakes. The original Pete’s Dragon was never a memorable or enjoyable film for me, so there was already much to improve upon, which is what the new version does in every way. It’s poignant, heartwarming, earnest, and bursting with feeling. It’s a simple story told exceptionally well with artistry and grace. There’s a dash of indie flavor to the mainstream filmmaking. I think this movie will appeal to people of all ages, grown ups that are looking for some magic in their movies, as well as families looking for a movie that will entertain children but won’t rot their brains. It’s fortunate that we can end such a mediocre summer at the movies on a high note, and Pete’s Dragon is a wonderful infusion of the old and new, magic and reality, heartache and triumph. It’s a movie dripping with purity, and one that demands to be seen and hopefully cherished.
Nate’s Grade: A-