I suppose this new Pete’s Dragon falls under the umbrella of Disney’s ongoing project to produce live-action remakes of all of its animated features. The 1977 film was mostly live-action, of course, except for the key element of the mischievous giant reptile itself, which was really cartoonish visually. The opportunity for a dragon do-over in the era of lifelike CGI must have been irresistible.
And this new dragon — again called Elliot — is a delight and a marvel: a sweet-faced creature of green fur and exuberant spirit, he may be monstrously enormous, but there’s little of the monster about him. He’s more like a really big mutt of a dog: he chases his own tail in one bit, so prepare for awwws. And he loves his boy, orphaned, abandoned Pete (newcomer Oakes Fegley), who’s about 10 years old and lives a Mowgli-like existence in the forests of the Pacific Northwest. Indeed, this new Pete’s Dragon has more in common with Disney’s recent Jungle Book remake than it does with the 1977 original — this one is set in the 1980s, not the turn of the 20th century, and it’s no longer a musical — and even more in common with E.T., with its tale of a lonely little boy attempting to protect his secret fantastical friend from adults who would do him harm.
Director and cowriter (with Toby Halbrooks) David Lowery’s most recent feature is 2013’s vexing Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, an oddly dreamy romance among criminals, like if Terrence Malick made Bonnie and Clyde, and not wholly successfully; his previous two features are also decidedly on the arthouse end of the spectrum. So I wonder if a conscious decision to go very much in the other direction — toward simple family-oriented entertainment — is what led to the gentle mildness of Dragon; at times, the movie even drifts into dullness. There’s certainly little of the frenetic, colorful action that characterizes many movies aimed at kids these days: this is more like a pleasant walk in the redwood forest where Pete and Elliot live than a rollicking adventure with them. (That’s not a terrible thing, and is probably more effective as a subtle pro-environmental message than a movie that prominently features commercial logging could have tried to push.) There’s surprisingly little in the way of drama, too: when park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard: Jurassic World, The Help) discovers Pete living in the woods — where he’s been alone (except for Elliot) for six years after an outing with his parents to the middle of nowhere ended in a car wreck that killed them — it’s easier than we might expect for her to get Pete to come back to civilization. Pete may be a bit dirty and disheveled, but he’s hardly feral, and slides rather easily back into the world with Grace; her boyfriend, logging manager Jack (Wes Bentley: We Are Your Friends, Interstellar); and Jack’s daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence: Southpaw). Pete’s only worried about Elliot, particularly when he learns that Jack’s friend and coworker Gavin (Karl Urban: Star Trek Beyond, The Loft) has glimpsed Elliot and wants to go dragon hunting.
I often felt, in the midst of the movie, that it wasn’t enough of anything: not scary enough, not funny enough. But its serenity and warm heart are infectious, and even as it tells a story that feels familiar, it avoids the sort of clichés that might have rendered it tiresome: Gavin turns out not to be quite as villainous as he could have been, for one. And I especially appreciate how Lowery portrays Grace: her father (Robert Redford: Truth, A Walk in the Woods) has been scaring the local kids for years with his story of a dragon encounter in the woods when he was young, and Grace has been scoffing at that story for years, because she knows the forest like the back of her hand and has seen no evidence of dragons. (Elliot can make himself invisible, which is very convenient for staying hidden.) It would have been very easy for Pete’s Dragon to cast her as the no-imagination grumpy-grump in a lazy parable about keeping an open mind. But the movie never goes anywhere near there.
In the end, I found that the mildness of the film has fooled me, and that some big feeling had snuck up on me and left me in happy tears. The magic of Pete’s Dragon may be understated, but it is soft and clean and lovely.