‘Pete’s Dragon’ is a remake of a Disney movie that no one is particularly nostalgic about, filtered through a grit and naturalism no one could have expected. Unlike previous Disney remakes that merely put a CGI and movie star sheen over previous properties, ‘Pete’s Dragon’ actually takes the source material in wildly different directions. Even though it’s a far from perfect creation, this should be regarded as how to do a remake right.
Things start off rather tragically when a young boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) finds himself in a horrible car wreck in the woods that claims his parents’ lives. The boy climbs out of the smoldering car to find a dragon that instantly embraces him. Fast forward a few years and Pete now lives a happy life in the woods with the dragon, flying around and getting up to various boy/dragon shenanigans. Meanwhile, in a nearby logging town, Robert Redford plays a local carpenter/eccentric who spins wild tales about a dragon he once saw in the woods to the endless amusement of local kiddies. His daughter (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a forest ranger who’s amused by her father, but tends to only believe what she sees with her eyes. That all changes when her own daughter (Oona Laurence) spots Pete in the woods and they bring the wild boy home. He finds comfort in their family and starts spinning tales about a dragon that makes them all rather curious.
More than anything else, ‘Pete’s Dragon’ succeeds because writer/director David Lowery (‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints‘) has an interesting take on this world that translates into a sumptuous cinematic vision. The original ‘Pete’s Dragon’ isn’t exactly a classic. It’s known mainly for the early-ish combination of animation and live-action as well as an awkwardly handled tale of child abuse. It’s not a great or even good film, but it is a brand name that Disney was willing to resurrect. Thankfully, the studio let Lowery take it in an entirely new direction. All that remains is the idea of a boy named Pete being friends with a dragon and some of the dragon’s design. Beyond that, it’s a very different tale. Ostensibly, it’s a boy-and-his-dog story with a dragon, but it’s also a moving parable about the power of escape through imagination (particularly from childhood trauma) that deals with those themes very much in the same way Steven Spielberg did in ‘E.T.’. Yet Dowery’s film is his own. The relationship between the boy and the mythical creature is unique, with surprising emotional heft and some stunning visuals whenever the pair take to the skies.
‘Pete’s Dragon’ feels oddly small for a summertime Disney blockbuster. Granted, there’s a big CGI dragon involved with all the fire-breathing spectacle that suggests. However, the story is small and human, about a boy who escaped tragedy for years finding his way back to simple domestic pleasures. Oakes Fegley is remarkable in the lead role, easily delivering on the emotional complexity of the piece as well as the technical challenges of his main co-star not being available for on-set photography. Bryce Dallas Howard takes what could have been a thankless role as a loving mother figure and finds a grounded core. Ditto Robert Redford and the youngster Oona Laurence.
Lowrey’s goal was to mix an intimate family drama with grand old movie spectacle. For the most part, he somehow pulled it off. The little moments bring out big emotions while the dragon action is expertly crafted and kept within the limits of a small town to help ground the fantasy. When the movie is on, it’s downright magical and transportive in a way that should make kids giddy and cause their parents to tear up with nostalgia for their similar seminal cinematic experiences as young’uns.
It’s not a perfect movie, though. The relentless Country soundtrack and postcard imagery feel a bit pandering in their manipulative love for folksy Americana. Likewise, Karl Urban’s one-note villain is cartoonish is ways that often derail the realist charms of the human story, and the environmental themes slipped in around his subplot are painfully tacked-on. Thankfully, the bits and pieces of ‘Pete’s Dragon’ that flounder are easily overshadowed by the core that works.
It’s tough for movies to deliver the particular brand of childlike fairy tale magic that Disney strives to provide in every offering. Certainly, previous remakes the studio made in recent years didn’t quite reach that lofty goal/company mandate. Somehow, ‘Pete’s Dragon’ finds that cozy emotional place and hits home hard. It really shouldn’t have worked. This isn’t a remake that fans were dying to see. But that’s often how the best movies slip through. In a world of branded remakes, it’s nice to see one that is unexpected and takes risks. Although this is still a story about a boy making friends with a cartoon dragon, it does so with resonance, humanity and meaning that are beautifully unexpected and deeply welcome.