This new version of the old Disney film Pete’s Dragon that some people may remember from their childhoods is more of a reboot and, just as Disney did earlier this year with its wonderful The Jungle Book, this necessary updating more than retells the tale – it re-energizes it and makes for an entertaining and meaningful experience for kids and parents.
Director David Lowery, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Toby Halbrooks, has managed to capture the most important essence of this tale – the caring and loving relationship between a young orphaned boy named Pete (in an impressively fine performance by Oakes Fegley) and a massive green dragon named Elliot. The trick here is to get it right when they interact, and Lowery does this by making Elliot’s presence vividly real – from the rush of his breath to the wet spray of his snort in Elliot’s face.
Of course, this wouldn’t work if the young actor who plays Pete were not so attuned, so convincingly expressive and reactive to what we know was really a green screen on the set. This makes Fegely’s work here all the more crucial and commendable, but Lowery does not only gets this right but also does so when Pete starts to interact with human beings as well.
The heart of the story is family torn apart, reassembled as it were between boy and creature, and then challenged by other forces that threaten to annihilate what they have built together. The early scenes when little Pete (Levi Alexander) suffers the loss of his birth parents have a devastating impact (caution should be used for little ones who may not be able to handle the disturbing elements depicted), and then the child wanders in the woods and is surrounded by wolves until the dragon comes to his rescue. The bond between the two is instantly established, and we flash forward six years later and Pete is surviving happily in the woods with Elliot, oblivious to the world beyond the forest.
Enter forest ranger Grace (a radiant Bryce Dallas Howard) who has just left her father Meacham (a great, subdued performance by Robert Redford) who is telling the local kids all about his encounter with a dragon in the woods many years before. Grace has always discounted her father’s tall tales, but she discovers the feral boy Pete and, as would be the case, gets her maternal instinct going – little boys aren’t supposed to be left alone in the woods even if they claim to be happy and don’t want to leave because they are being taking care of by a friendly dragon.
Grace does bring Pete home against his will, but she has a young daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) and husband Jack (Wes Bentley), and their family unit tweaks memories in Pete of his own parents and latent desires to be a kid in this world where things seem happy and right, but the thought of Elliot keeps weighing on his mind and emotions.
To complicate matters is the film’s villain (Karl Urban) in the form of Jack’s brother and partner in a lumber business, who seems to be a little cutthroat in his dealing with the environment, much to Grace’s dismay, and then learns about the dragon and gets set on capturing it to make a name for himself and have a big pay day (thoughts of King Kong started circling in my head during some of the more painful scenes associated with Gavin’s pursuit of Elliot).
At this point the rest is all spoilers, and the story is too precious to ruin by disclosing too much. There are many questions posed to viewers young and old about how we handle nature, the creatures that live in the wild, and also the importance of family for children. My young son and I went out to lunch after viewing the movie, and he made all the connections as he should, but that is because the film is successful in conveying them in some subtle and not so subtle ways.
Daniel Hart’s musical score lifts the heart throughout, especially as Elliot with Pete on his back rises above their forest world to see a sunset, and Bojan Bazaelli’s cinematography is vividly conceived, making us not just see the forest for the trees, but manifesting an astonishing landscape that unfolds where we have no trouble believing a sometimes green and other times invisible dragon could very well reside.
The film tweaks all the appropriate heartstrings, and one may feel the urge to cry, especially those of a certain age who may remember Disney films like Old Yeller where the love of a pet becomes inextricably linked to shedding tears. There is also joy in this film as it celebrates families, promotes appreciation of nature’s beauty, and reminds us that all creatures – even enormous green dragons – are deserving of respect and dignity.
Many rewards await viewers of Pete’s Dragon, but perhaps the greatest of all is knowing that in this summer of discontent, this fairy tale of a movie can amaze and delight you, and hopefully get your mind off the troubles of the real world, even if only for 90 minutes.