“Pete’s Dragon” is Disney’s latest re-imagining of one of their past favorites. However, the 1977 original isn’t actually regarded as being on the upper tier of the Disney catalog, so it was definitely an interesting, if not risky choice. But director and co-writer David Lowrey (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) took a serious, old-fashioned and sincere approach to the boy/dragon story – and struck gold.
The jarring opening scene sets the mature, largely sophisticated tone. At only 4 years old, Pete is the lone survivor of a car accident that claims the lives of both his mother and father (this may the fastest parents have ever been killed-off in a Disney film, and that’s saying a lot). He flees into the woods with a book he was reading in the car and soon encounters a giant green dragon. The creature protects him from a pack of wolves and the two become fast friends. Pete names his dragon Elliot, the name of the dog in the book.
Following a six-year fast-forward, Lowrey devotes a large chunk of time to establishing this relationship, which will be the backbone of the film. We get a good 10 minutes of Pete (played by Oakes Fegley) and Elliot interacting in a variety of ways, allowing us to fully understand their bond. Comparisons can instantly be made to the relationship between Hiccup and Toothless in the “How to Train Your Dragon” films, and similar “animals protecting a boy” elements of Disney’s own re-telling of “The Jungle Book” from earlier this year. What helps us buy into the Pete/Elliot friendship is the rugged, anti-cute appearance of the dragon. The CGI design decisions and execution make this one of the most believable fantasy creatures seen on screen in recent memory. Pete doesn’t speak much, and Elliot doesn’t talk at all, so their facial expressions and quick gestures often serve as their means of conversation. And unlike the original, there are no musical numbers used to liven things up.
Shot entirely in New Zealand, “Pete’s Dragon” is set in Millhaven (or what Disney enthusiasts would call your typical Small Town, USA). The lumber business is what generates the revenue in a community that still uses cord telephones and record players. The idyllic, wholesome setting only enhances the throwback vibe. This movie could have been made in 1977. Bryce Dallas Howard plays forest ranger Grace, and Robert Redford (who recently took “A Walk in the Woods”, where he didn’t find a dragon but did deal with with Nick Nolte) plays her dad, Meacham. For decades, he’s told the tale of how he once saw a giant, green dragon in the forest – but very few people believed him. A new generation of town kids aren’t sure what to think of the story, either. And they can’t try to search for it on their phone or IPads, since the digital age hasn’t yet reached Millhaven.
“Pete’s Dragon” has a simple, majestic feel to it, though still with a bit of an edge. Pete and Natalie (Oona Laurence from “Southpaw”), the daughter of the owner of the lumberyard, are placed in peril throughout much of the movie due to successfully sneaking-off from the adults. This device is used multiple times in order to move the story along, which did bother me. But it’s Disney peril, which means you know nothing bad will really happen to them (that only happens to parents), and the lack of imagination in the script doesn’t detract from the calm, almost elegant rhythm. The editing is smart and Lowrey avoids getting trapped into predictable “save the trees/environmental message” territory I feared was coming.
While Elliot is the visual star, the cinematography of the wilderness scenes in particular are impressive. And there’s a nice surprise in the final few moments to guarantee that everyone, in the film, and in the theater, goes home happy.
This is a step-back-in-time Disney family film. You can envision Walt, himself, introducing this on his “Wonderful World” TV show with a wide smile. It’s “Spielbergian” in a way that Spielberg’s own “The BFG” failed to be. When you hear older generation movie fans say, “they don’t make movies like that anymore”, you can now correct them and say “yes they do.”
Refreshing and engaging from start to finish, on The Official LCJ Report Card, “Pete’s Dragon” gets a B+.
Running Time: 103 min.