Disney’s update of their 1977 partially animated, mostly live action kids flick Pete’s Dragon is a beast as rare and wondrous as the titular fire-breather itself: a film aimed primarily at children that favours soul over slapstick, a beautiful, lyrical film that transcends the remake label. It may be based on that earlier film but all it really takes is the title and the basic premise of a young orphan boy befriending a dragon. The rest could scarcely be more different.
Directed by David Lowery, this iteration of Pete’s Dragon ditches the songs and the tubby animated dragon and goes for a more textured, earthy feel that’s more in line with Lowery’s 2013 breakthrough, the Malickian romance Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. He brings an understated sincerity to the film that begins in its quietly devastating opening scene, which sees a car crash leave Pete orphaned and lost in the forest. He soon comes face to face with a giant dragon – a beautiful and friendly creature, covered in soft green fur, with large, sprawling paws in place of more typical talons. Pete bonds with the dragon immediately and names him Elliot, after the dog in his favourite children’s book.
Cut to six years later and Pete (played as a 10-year-old by the brilliant Oakes Fegley) is living feral, deep in the forest with his dragon companion. It seems like a simple, idyllic life, cavorting through the woods, running through streams and leaping off cliffs, with Elliot keeping him safe at every turn. But Pete’s life is quickly turned upside down when he is found by Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a forest ranger whose father (Robert Redford, with a warm glint in his eye) has had his own experience with Elliot and entertains the local kids with tales of his dragon encounter. Grace takes Pete into her family – including young daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) and husband Jack (Wes Bentley), who runs the logging company that’s tearing down the forest.
The path from impressive indie debut to big budget studio movie is a well-trodden one recently, with the likes of Colin Trevorrow, Mark Webb, Josh Trank and Gareth Edwards all making that leap with mixed results. Perhaps it’s the relatively low budget – $65 million is a lot but far from a $250 million tentpole – and the lower stakes that go along with that, but Lowery is able to put his stamp all over the film. The pacing is slower than your average family film and the tone is more gentle, patiently observing Pete’s slow transition back into the real world with his new surrogate family.
There’s a low-key feel to the family scenes and the relationships feel natural, thanks largely to the easy-going chemistry the excellent cast share. It’s easy to buy into Pete’s internal struggle between the home he’s settling into and the loyal creature who has been his family for most of his life.
Lowery does such a fantastic job of avoiding the obvious, whether that be overblown sentiment or perfunctory set-pieces, it’s all the more disappointing when the film contrives an antagonist and an action climax that feels wholly unnecessary. The baddie is Gavin (Karl Urban), Jack’s brother who wants to capture Elliot and somehow cash in as the man who caught this local legend. Urban’s a good enough actor and almost too likeable a presence to let this role slip into camp villainy but the character’s actions don’t feel earned or believable seemingly existing just to set up some conflict.
The action sequence that arises out of it feels like it doesn’t belong but, as with the rest of the film, the effects border on flawless. Many films struggle the integrate CG creatures with real actors and real environments but here there’s no hint of iffy green screen or clunky effects. The decision to shoot the bulk of the film in real locations works wonderfully, lending a tactile, earthy feel that is often lacking in the likes of Disney’s latest Jungle Book, which relied entirely on green screen. Elliot blends into it all perfectly, always giving the sense that he’s actually there, a living, (fire)breathing dragon and that is crucial to the sense of magic that is at the heart of the film.
Without aping Amblin movies directly, Lowery captures the same wonder that permeated the films of that era; that feeling of magic that you can’t put your finger on, but you know it’s there. It’s there in the glint in Redford’s eye as he remembers coming face-to-face with Elliot. It’s there when Elliot quietly stalks the town in the middle of the night, looking for Pete. It’s there every time we see this unusually beautiful creature take flight.
That indefinable magic and Lowery’s poetic style make Pete’s Dragon one of the biggest surprises of the summer; an unexpectedly beautiful and quietly moving film that makes the most of its studio budget while still following its indie heart.