Pete's Dragon Review
For the past few years, Disney has been on a bit of a remake kick, returning to the well of their new properties in search of true inspiration. Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent and Cinderella seemed to kick things off and each had a varying degree of success. Earlier this year, The Jungle Book captured audience’s attention with a wondrous visual extravaganza, as nearly everything in that film was a computer generated creation. Now, we have Pete’s Dragon, a remake of one of the more bizarre, under seen Disney films – to hear anyone call the 1977 original a classic would be a surprise. What is a surprise, on the other hand, is the fact that this new remake is Disney’s best foray into the realm of live action remakes yet and their best film in years.
Opening with a scene of trademark Disney heartbreak, Pete’s Dragon expands into a wonderfully touching slice of Americana, in tune with the folklore of the United States and the customs of the Pacific Northwest, where it takes place. Our protagonist Pete, played by Oakes Fegley, is a young boy who has been living on his own in the forest for six years, aided by his trusty canine-esque dragon, Elliot. When Pete is discovered, he finds himself confronted with the life that he should have and torn from the life that he may need to leave behind. Yes, there are themes of death, family, loneliness and childhood – these are Disney’s staples of course – and yes the film deals with them in ways that you would expect. All the same, there is a remarkably earnest nature to what director David Lowery has brought to his film and it is this that makes Pete’s Dragon special.
Lowery was an inspired choice to direct the film and he has instilled Pete’s Dragon with a truly serene grace. The way he has chosen to make his mainstream debut seems more at home in films like his indie debut Ain’t Them Bodies Saints or Upstream Color, a film he edited. This marriage of form and texture is entirely welcome in the world of big-budget studio films and nothing makes me happier than seeing it on the big screen – in a Disney film no less. Lowery has made the transition from indie to big budget wonderfully and, much like Gareth Edwards with Godzilla and Rian Johnson with Looper, he has broken through with style. It also helps that he’s got a veteran like Robert Redford to dish out sage wisdom, a fine performer like Bryce Dallas Howard as Pete’s mother figure and two wonderful child performances from Oona Laurence as her daughter and, of course, Fegley as Pete.
Tonally, Pete’s Dragon is as much a throwback to the Disney classics of the 60s and 70s as anything I have seen in recent years. The film also manages to be wonderfully evocative of the best of Steven Spielberg as well, from awe and mystery to touching scenes of true emotion. Much of the film is in debt to E.T. and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, to be certain, but Pete’s Dragon is its own beast as well: wonderfully warm and powerfully melancholic in both familiar and unique ways.
Lowery brings out a true sense of nostalgia - as in a feeling rather than simple recognition of genre tropes, familiar story beats, 80s synth scores and filmic influences. This is not to discount recent efforts such as Netflix’s Stranger Things and Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but Pete’s Dragon works harder and more subtly to bring about a rise in old emotions. It wasn’t until nearly halfway through the film that I realized that it was set in the 1980s and I mean that as a compliment, especially when so many films feel the need to write this out, underline it and bold it as if to say: THIS IS THE 1980s. It’s refreshing how well this film is able to work with nostalgia, something that can seem so simple and easy yet, more often than not, is so difficult to pull off.
Despite all the praise it deserves, Pete’s Dragon isn’t perfect. An antagonist is shoehorned into the last third and, while this character is not a true villain, his motivations are a bit muddled and tossed in from left field. It feels as if he is heading for a resolution where he learns what he should have done but it’s a direction the film never quite goes. In the end, he is mostly just a caricature – another notch on the belt of the modern day trend of awful villains. Thankfully, he’s a footnote on a film that is too imbued with positive emotion to worry itself with any notion of true “villainy.” In addition to this character, the score can be a bit overwhelming at times, especially in the film’s slightly perfunctory epilogue.
These (few) problems are no match compared to what I came away from Pete’s Dragon with. There are wonderful performances all around, a simple but never undercooked script, some truly gorgeous cinematography and the film’s genuine, open-hearted display of emotion can capture the heart of even the deepest of cynics. Also, what other Disney film gives you a soundtrack featuring songs by The Lumineers, Leonard Cohen, Peggy Lee and St. Vincent? The answer is no other Disney film, in case you were wondering.
At one point, Robert Redford’s character describes the true magic one can sense in the presence of a dragon and, at many points throughout Pete’s Dragon, there is true magic on screen. Full of heart, a wistful sense of adventure and rare glimpses of true wisdom, Pete’s Dragon is the best family film of the year so far and possibly the best studio film of the summer so far.