A public service announcement for all of the parents in the audience thinking about taking their spawn to see Pete’s Dragon: Your kids are guaranteed to start crying within the film’s opening five minutes. That’s the bad news. The good news is that they’ll stop within its next five as their fear gives way to calming waves of wonder.
Wonder is what Pete’s Dragon runs on, after all, plus the best craft, effects work and child performances a spectacle-sized kids’ movie can buy on a $60 million budget. The dollars go far, but wonder—that intangible, alternating blend of terror and awe—goes much further, transforming an absolutely bonkers 1977 Disney musical into an arthouse tone poem about the hazards of belief without basis.
That description doesn’t make Pete’s Dragon sound dry enough, so let’s double down by calling it a fantasy yarn for adults, where the discovery of a woodland dwelling dragon has actual real world consequences and fallout. Pete’s Dragon doesn’t sound like a Disney film at all, does it? Instead it sounds like a David Lowery film, which is to say that it sounds aloof and empty but beautifully shot, but the combination of aesthetics—Lowery’s and Disney’s—turns out to be well-matched. Lowery lends Pete’s Dragon an eye for deliberate compositions that allow us to fully appreciate the labor that went into bringing the beast of the title to life, as well as a steadfast sense of humanity which extends even to the film’s nominal villain. Disney, in usual Disney fashion, infuses Lowery’s sensibilities with the kind of rich and fulfilling enchantment tailor-made to send us soaring.
Even if you know that the Lowery edition of Pete’s Dragon is a remake of the original Don Chaffey picture, you might forget as much part-way through the new film. This is a case of night and day, two related but separate phases of time, where we can recognize the common thread tying both together even if we see no other meaningful similarities between them. In Chaffey’s film, Pete is a boy on the run from his redneck foster family, from whom he’s guarded by his imaginary friend, a goofy looking dragon named Elliot. In Lowery’s 2016 update, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is an orphan whose parents eat it in a brutal car wreck, and who comes within a hair’s breadth of becoming wolf food before he is saved by a considerably less goofy looking dragon named Elliot, whom he bonds with immediately. (Parents: This is the first point of the film where you should expect your littlest ones to grab onto your arm and commence wailing. It also isn’t the last, but you’ll probably be wailing with them for the rest.)
Here, 1977 diverges from 2016, though Lowery smartly appropriates bits and pieces of plot as needed from his source material. Notably, foster care is a thing, but instead of cruel, dimwitted hillbillies, Pete’s surrogate family-to-be is comprised of Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a forest ranger, her beau, lumber mill owner Jack (Wes Bentley), and Natalie (Oona Laurence), Jack’s daughter. (Elliot also retains his knack for hiding in plain sight, reimagined here as natural camouflage that’d make a chameleon jealous, instead of as sorcery.) It’s the emergence of Grace, Natalie and Jack in Pete’s life that puts Pete’s Dragon on firm narrative rails and gives it propulsion. Before the characters make their accidental acquaintance with one another, Lowery tells a story through sensation and emotion, setting aside notions of action and incident to dive into a life lived free from civilization.
Once that life is interrupted by modern society (“modern,” in the context of the film, means “the 1980s” in the purposefully vaguest sense of the phrase), Pete is in a position where he must either choose a new existence with Grace, Natalie and Jack, or his old one with Elliot, his dearest friend in the whole world. That the film thrusts this choice upon Pete is unsurprising. That the choice is dramatized with such tearful impact, on the other hand, is surprising. Like the best examples of “kids with alien or fantastical best buddies” movies (E.T. and The Iron Giant instantly spring to mind), Pete’s Dragon invests in its non-human element so thoroughly that it becomes humanized. It’s one thing for the movie to acknowledge Elliot as a character, and another thing entirely for the movie to acknowledge Elliot as a living, breathing entity of empathetic depth.
In short, you’ll fall in love with Elliot the moment he arrives on screen. Early teasers for Pete’s Dragon suggest a coyness that the full movie happily rejects: We see Elliot in his full, fuzzy glory, undisguised by camerawork or by staging. He’s big and huggy, an intersection of canine and feline, as apt to grab a stick (tree trunk, really) in his jaws as he is to chase his tail. You’ll leave the theater wishing for your own Elliot, which makes the movie’s darker turns stick in our throats. Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban, who maybe should have been cast as Jack), a hunter, is hell bent on capturing Elliot, who he sees as a dangerous monster. His motivations are made sympathetic, but we understand Elliot as a testament of nature’s majesty, and so Gavin’s scheme reads as cruelty not by way of malice, but of ignorance. (As Hobbes once said, “If people could put rainbows in zoos, they’d do it.”)
It’s all part of the film’s soft-shoed environmental message, which is pronounced but never over-articulated, and also its plea for open-mindedness. Magic is key to your enjoyment of Pete’s Dragon, a motif affirmed by Robert Redford, who shows up to play Mr. Meacham, Grace’s sage father, with muted worldliness. (It helps Meacham’s cause that he’s a bit magical himself, popping into frame at just the right time to aid Pete and Natalie in freeing Elliot from Gavin’s clutches.) Redford’s job is to remind her, and us, that magic can change the way we see the world. It can also change the way we see Pete’s Dragon, whose well-earned sweetness hits theaters in the nick of time to bring moviegoers back up after a summer full of grim-dark blockbusting bummers.
Director: David Lowery
Writer: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks
Starring: Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban
Release Date: August 12, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.