Pete’s Dragon is the rare remake that doesn’t feel like an aimless cash-grab, but rather what feels like well-intentioned upgrade on a beloved classic. Director David Lowery offers a modern take on Don Chaffey’s 1977 live-action/animated musical version of a boy that befriends a big green dragon. While charming in many ways, Chaffey’s version comes from a different era, and many of today’s kids sadly probably have never heard of it, and sadly probably never would have without this upgrade. With 2015’s Cinderella, and The Jungle Book this year, Disney continues its trend of bringing animated classic alive again via live-action remakes, and the results have been surprisingly successful (both critically and financially). Chalk up Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon as another win for the mouse.
The tale begins with young 4-year-old Pete (Levi Alexander) in the backseat of his car, on the move to his new house with his mom (Esmée Myers) and dad (Gareth Reeves). Their warm family adventure takes a swift dark turn after a deer darts across their car, causing a violent car crash that leave the young child on his own in a scary part of the woods. Being a Disney tale, the darkness is handled well, and only lasts for brief moment until Pete’s titular dragon emerges from the woods, showing himself to the young boy. “Are you going to eat me?” the young boy asks, in a well needed moment of levity. Thankfully for him, this isn’t Game Of Thrones. Elliot is a well intentioned Dragon who literally takes the young boy under his wing, and keeps him safe.
Six years later, the grown up 10-year-old version of Peter (now played by Oakes Fegley), is fully acclimated to surviving in the wilderness with the help of his trusty green friend, who he names Elliot (with all sounds voiced by John Kassir). They are best buddies, and have a rather enjoyable sense of peace and quiet out there. They’re left isolated and alone with each others company until their paths suddenly clash with fellow ten-year-old Natalie (Oona Laurence), the curious daughter of park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and lumber mill owner Jack (Wes Bentley), whose operation is just on the outskirts of the woods were Pete and Elliot reside. Grace has trouble believing that the magical Elliot can actually exist, despite her father Meacham (Robert Redford) telling her for years that he’d come across a dragon, but no one ever believed it to be anything but a local legend.
The movies soars at its highest levels when it patiently outlines the budding relationship between Pete and Elliot. We also learn to care for Grace and Natalie as they make an extended effort to welcome Pete into their family. Lowery, who co-wrote the new script with Toby Halbrooks (which they reworked from the originals) offer a patiently paced and mature story, featuring a warm sincerity that never feels forced. The only cliche may be Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban) who crosses paths with the dragon early on, and sets out to capture him so he can reclaim some of the respect that his brother has at their lumber company. This part was one of the rare parts of the story that felt a bit tacked on just so there was some form of “villain,” and it only stood out because the rest of the story is so well told and understated (especially the great Robert Redford).
Lowery first caught my attention in 2013 with the beautifully shot and equally patient film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. His work on that and elsewhere helped him land this job for Disney, who seem to have taken a hands off approach and let the indie director do his thing, this time with a big time budget. This never feels like one of those cases of a big studio using a hot director as a puppet (cough, Fantastic Four). Thankfully, Lowery has full reign to let his vision unfold, and what a vision it is. Themes about family, deforestation, imagination and storytelling, are never based over our head, but told in a way that lets us know that the writers trust their audience. Considering the strong majority are children, this is even more commendable.
For such a large scale Disney movie, it’s hard to ignore just how mature and smart Pete’s Dragon is. It doesn’t shy away from tackling its themes, but also offers plenty in the spirit of joyful imagination, awe and wonder, that you’ve come to expect. It’s amazing that such a strong remake like this exists in todays climate, standing out on its own, while also drawing you back to the feelings you had about the original. Guess that’s what happens when you give a real director a real shot at doing something special.