‘Pete’s Dragon’ Review: A Worthy Remake With a Childlike Sense of Wonder
Disney’s 1977 musical Pete’s Dragon was my favorite movie as a kid, one I watched obsessively on VHS. In retrospect, I can now look back on it as an adult and admit it was a pretty awful movie: It was about an orphan whose adoptive family chased him while gleefully singing songs about abusing him. The songs were bad (though my 6-year-old self enjoyed them), the acting was campy and mawkish, and the shoddy animation looks laughable today. But as much as the movie was a dated element of its time, it still told an emotionally relatable story that, when handled by Disney, can become timeless. It only makes sense that the studio remade Pete’s Dragon, keeping that same sentiment, but without the hokey songs and with more impressive visual effects.
In the new Pete’s Dragon from David Lowery, which he directed and co-wrote with his Ain’t Them Bodies Saints collaborator Toby Halbrooks, the film swaps out the gung-ho child abusers for loving parents who die in a car crash. It opens with a heartbreaking death scene and follows the 6-year-old Pete (Levi Alexander) as he wanders into the nearby forest alone. He’s quickly surrounded by an angry pack of wolves, but a giant green dragon shows up to save him. Pete names his dragon Elliot, and we jump six years ahead to find Elliot running through the woods with the older Pete (now played by Oakes Fegley), dirty and wrapped in tattered rags, looking pretty similar to Mowgli in Disney’s other recent remake, The Jungle Book. But while the animals of The Jungle Book become humanized by their ability to talk, Elliot merely bumbles and sighs, which keeps his fantastical nature intact.
While Pete is the only human Elliot trusts, he isn’t the only one who believes in him. In the nearby town of Willhaven, the fabled dragon is known in stories passed down by an old man named Meachum, played warmly by Robert Redford. Meacham’s dazzling tales may be only folklore for the town, but he still adamantly believes in the creature he saw years before. His Park Ranger daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is too practical to indulge in such fantasies, but when she finally meets Elliot, her face conveys the same awe of a 10-year-old.
As a kid I loved Pete’s Dragon because it showed that magical friends didn’t have to be imaginary, that a kid unhappy at home could find solace and comfort in a fantasy world. It was pure escapism, and it’s what Disney sells to kids with its colorful characters and fantastical adventures. But the new Pete’s Dragon takes the wonder of the child’s gaze and gives it back to its adult characters, showing Howard’s Grace, her fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley), his brother Gavin (Karl Urban), and the rest of the town that they can experience it, too, and so can the audience. What Lowery’s remake does best is convey classic Disney magic in a family film that’s as uplifting for kids as it is for adults.
While our current era of remakes and reboots feels exhausting and unnecessary, the new Pete’s Dragon is a worthy one for its visuals alone. It’s one of the most stunning live-action animation hybrids Disney has made in years, and that’s because it truly feels like a hybrid. The visuals don’t merely compliment the film, stacking CG on top of real photography. For comparison, think of Disney’s The BFG from earlier this summer, a movie where the worlds of dreams and reality are literally divided, and where digital animation is sprinkled on top of real-life settings. Pete’s Dragon doesn’t have that same separation, as Lowery fuses those two sides by blurring the line between the magic of myths and the magic of the natural landscape.
The film’s lush and luminous cinematography and real-life locations (shot across New Zealand) make you feel that sense of realism. The characters shrouded by the shade of the trees or glistening in dabs of sunlight make you as a viewer feel like you’re standing in the middle of a damp forest floor. And when we get moments of fantasy, they feel no different. The dragon’s CG even looks realistic, and the choice to give him fur over typical dragon scales — a characteristic that makes him even more cuddly and friendly looking — amplifies his realism as his green fur blends into the foliage around him. Like the original movie’s dragon, Elliot can also be invisible, but instead of zapping in and out of sight, he camouflages into his surroundings. Lowery’s visual world essentially translates the movie’s message, that magic is everywhere if you allow yourself to see it. It may be a cliché and sappy sentiment, and one we’ve seen again and again in movies, but when done right it can be a beautiful one.
The film also uses 3D to stunning degrees, and is one of the few 3D movies where I forgot I was wearing glasses. There’s no pop-out surprises or elaborate, distracting visuals. Instead the 3D lends each shot a sense of depth and a sharpness that emphasizes the scale and immensity of Elliot and the forest. It’s especially captivating in scenes where Elliot flies as the camera glides and twirls with him in the air. But Lowery’s directing never feels too desperate to give its audience a POV experience, removing the camera from the action just enough to also let us watch from a distance.
Pete’s Dragon may not accomplish anything new or marvel, nor is it as culturally important as other recent Disney films, but it breathes magic into a stale story for a new generation. Maybe I’m still that 6 year old at heart, but any film that can reignite a childlike sense of wonder is one worth experiencing, as a kid or as an adult.