Directed by David Lowery
Written by David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oakes Fegley and Oona Lawrence, featuring the voice of John Kassir as Elliot
Runtime 102 minutes
Pete’s Dragon is the latest in the line of Disney updates/live action remakes of their animated or just older films. Thankfully, they went in a totally different direction and made this Pete’s Dragon a good movie. Gone are the hammy actors and terrible songs and the talking animated dragon Elliot. In its stead, we get a deeply heartfelt story about love and loss and the strength to carry on.
The story is that of Pete (Oakes Fegley), a small boy around the age of 10 who was the sole survivor of a car crash that claimed the lives of his parents at the age of 4. In the intervening 6 years, he was protected and more or less raised by a dragon he named Elliot (from a book he had with him in the car, his only real possession that he took with him at that tender age). Pete is discovered in the woods by park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) who takes him home until Social Services can determine what to do with him. She’s engaged to Jack (Wes Bentley), the manager of a mill who is in charge of destroying the woods, the logging operation is managed by Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban). Pete befriends Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Lawrence) and tells her about Elliot and draws her a picture of him. Grace sees the picture and takes it to her father Meacham (Robert Redford) who claims to have seen the dragon many years ago. Elliot is also discovered by Gavin, who arranges a hunting party and things go downhill from there.
The great part of the screenplay is that it doesn’t treat Gavin as a villain, necessarily, but merely a dumb human who doesn’t want to take the time to listen (so, sort of an everyman). Director/co-writer David Lowery, who if he’s known for anything it’s the indie picture Ain’t Them Bodies Saints from a few years ago, and co-writer Toby Halbrooks, whose feature writing debut this is but has worked as a producer (mostly for Lowery) for quite a while, build up a very emotional story with these characters, focusing on Pete’s loneliness and his love for Elliot to make up the core of the picture. While the characters aren’t fully rounded out (especially Jack, Meacham and Gavin), they are given just enough to not be caricatures. They also make it a point to delineate reactions to Elliot between wonder and fear dependent on what kind of person is witnessing him. Those with love and joy in their hearts (Pete, Grace, Meacham, Natalie) are filled with awe and wonder at seeing Elliot, while those with fear and anger (Gavin and his crew) react with fear and violence. Only Jack seems to be filled with both awe and fear, making his possibly the most human reaction and adding the only real shade of depth to his character. Lowery and Halbrooks’ screenplay lets the emotions build naturally and never try to force anything, while never missing an opportunity for action, or excitement. Another refreshing thing they do is create a climax that isn’t overblown or standard to contemporary tentpole films, but feels more like the Disney movies of the ‘70s where there is confrontation but the villain is just shown to be more scared than evil.
Lowery takes the script one step further by creating compelling visuals and giving his actors room to work with their characters. He lets his indie roots show, as he’s more focused on the relationships of the people than he is on the stunning visual effects of Elliot (though he’s not short on them either). He lets scenes play, sometimes too long, so the actors don’t have to rush through an emotion just to get to an action set piece. Where he falters a bit is in his pacing. Some sequences hit their mark and then keep going, dragging on long after we get their point.
The stable of ‘old pros’ in the film, Howard, Bentley, Urban and especially Redford, all do solid work here, not phoning it in just because it’s a Disney picture (like stars of old did) but the real draw here is young Oakes Fegley and Oona Lawrence. The children are relaxed and on point with their acting, so much so that they are more convincing in their roles than the adults. They’re genuine and expressive in ways child actors often aren’t (though that statement is becoming more and more incorrect, given the range of talent emerging now, especially from the group of kids in Stranger Things). The kids are pitch-perfect, contrasting Redford’s easy slide into ‘cool grandpa’ (which is such an odd thing to see, considering this is the man that played The Sundance Kid).
The stars, though, are the animators behind Elliot as well as the vocalizations of John Kassir. They made Elliot look more like Clifford the Big Red Dog (but green with wings) instead of one of Daenerys Stormborn’s brood. He’s perfectly lovable, except when he’s threatened or Pete is. He’s sweet and full of emotive expression without ever uttering a word.
It’s no wonder Disney tapped Lowery and Halbrooks to make their upcoming live-action Peter Pan, given the solid treatment they gave to this film, transforming it from a dreadful musical to something magical. This picture also opens the door to a wide range of older Disney films, considering that they aren’t sticking to their animated films now. I honestly wonder if in the next five years or so we’ll be getting an update to The Apple Dumpling Gang or perhaps The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. Whatever the future holds, Pete’s Dragon is a sweet little film that, while it doesn’t come close to topping The Jungle Book in terms of live-action remakes, it’s still a good film and a vast improvement over its source material.