I want to be real upfront with you, blindly loyal reader who hasn’t figured out I’m a fraud yet. This will not be the Pete’s Dragon review for those of you seeking an honest, clear-minded assessment of the latest in Disney’s mission to turn every older property they have into a new property, a mission of which I’m shockingly accepting.
The vast majority of Pete’s Dragon was spent with me either wide-eyed and in awe or on the verge of tears. This doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the next great work of cinematic art and that I can’t see someone finding this thing slow or boring or whatever silly thing. It also means that I’m just gonna go ahead and tell you upfront that this movie gets an A and that it’s a beautiful, lyrical poem of a film that’s just so wonderfully in awe of its world. I recommend it for anyone with a heart.
Now that we have that out of the way, I want to try to piece through exactly what it is that I love about Pete’s Dragon and perhaps what hit me so hard about it.
The film is based on the 1977 Disney live action/animated musical of the same name, though the name and the idea of an orphan boy and his friendly dragon in a small town is honestly all they share. The 2016 Pete’s Dragon tells the story of young Pete (Oakes Fegley) who lost his parents in a car accident in the woods at a very young age. He was left alone until he found Elliott, a massive green furry dragon. Elliott becomes Pete’s protector in the woods, and his best friend. Legends of a dragon in the woods spread, but none have seen him but an old man (Robert Redford) who claims to have met it decades ago
Six years later, Pete is found in the woods by the daughter of that old man, Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), a scrappy park ranger who takes Pete in when her soon-to-be-step-daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) sees him around the site where her fiancee (Wes Bentley) and his brother (Karl Urban) are chopping down the forest.
And that’s where I’m gonna cut off the summary, as it legitimately feels like going much further might start giving away huge chunks of the story.
Pete’s Dragon is undeniably a small film. It sets its motions early and it tells a story of a couple days and a few people having an adventure that largely changes only them. Which is of course, part of its charm. It’s a human adventure, the kind of adventure that pulls down and helps us to understand. It’s a damaged boy learning to trust and a family learning to believe in something bigger than themselves. It’s a change of the heart, the stakes in that world are then all too real because we can understand them. We know what it’s like to be in their place, and we know where they go and where they’ve been means something. Their victories become more real.
We can also understand them due to the impeccable directorial work of David Lowery. Coming off of the phenomenal Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Lowery brings the indie film mentality into the studio world (for one of the few times that’s said and actually means something). It’s a story that uses the size and the technical freedom to pull the story down to earth and make it about the people that populate it. His storytelling in this still operates on the mentality that he doesn’t have effects as a crutch, using them to enhance the moment, to nail the awe of the world rather than just to keep things going.
It also helps that the Malickian…influence of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is toned down, but that Lowery still has a very poetic ability with the camera. He uses the forest of Elliott and Pete’s home (filmed in New Zealand) as a sanctuary, a place of reverence. There’s something peaceful and calm and magical about what he does with the forest and with the film as a whole. Every shot feels like there’s a magic just under its surface, each one pregnant with something to uncover, even when it’s simple. Pete’s Dragon feels earnestly transportative, like Lowery found a little snapshot of a world that he wants us to uncover.
The last thing that really helps this film take on such power is Pete and Elliott themselves. The performances around are good. Bryce Dallas Howard is an exceptionally sweet person in this film and Karl Urban is clearly having mountains of fun, though I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a role where he wasn’t.
But Oakes Fegley’s Pete takes the baton that Neel Sethi set up with The Jungle Book earlier this year and runs with it. He’s a clever, brave, exciting young boy to watch on screen and so easy to root for. More importantly, it’s the kind of lead kid a young child might actually root for and see themselves in. The movie goes into his perspective and feels like the actual adventure of a child, not what an adult imagines a child might want to see.
His dragon, Elliot, is a stunning piece of work. Rooted in the conception of this massive hulking beast as a happy, furry dog, Elliot is a delight to watch on screen. You’ll definitely kind of want your own Elliot, a great, loyal beast who the film never bothers to really explain, in its favor. Elliot is part of the film’s magic, an avatar of comfort, helping the grieving Elliot until he’s ready to move on.
The love I have for Pete’s Dragon is ultimately an alchemical combination of everything above. Disney has carved out a beautiful little renaissance for themselves in live-action, taking the stories they’ve written and letting incredibly talented filmmakers carve out the human stories inside. For me, Pete’s Dragon is the standard to meet in that idea, an incredibly human story with a touch of magic to make it something more.
Director David Lowery has created a world of awe. A world that actually transports the viewer back to childhood where everything is wonderful and new, and the world is an adventure to discover. Gorgeous and lyrical, Pete’s Dragon is the kind of film that children can see themselves in and adults can transport themselves back to what it was like when the whole world was a possibility before them.