MPAA Rating: PG/ Genre: Fantasy Adventure Drama / Stars: Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Robert Redford/ Runtime: 102 minutes
When one watches the original Pete’s Dragon one will see that among many other things they may notice there is one thing which always rings true. That is the fact that not only is the film really truly a film that is very aware of its era, due to the film’s blend of live-action/2D animation as well as its musicality, but that the movie is also one of those movies that when you look back on it you also realize just how crazy twisted it is. This is because within that film’s 108-134 minute runtime, depending what version you are watching for there were at least 3 versions that have been released over the years, we as an audience witness everything from slave-driving foster parents to an organ-harvesting medicine showman (oh 1970’s what a different time you were!). So due to this I think it is safe to say that it wouldn’t have really worked if David Lowery had just simply made nothing more than a direct copy when Disney hired him to craft his own take on this story, but honestly that really just works in favor of the new adaption. This is because although Lowery’s version of Pete’s Dragon isn’t without its share of dark moments, it still does an amazing job of retaining the original film’s deeply rooted themes of family, love and connection, and then really manages to soar thanks to a truly game cast as well as a vivacious sense of adventure and incredible heart as well.
The plot is as follows: Set in the late 1970s/early 1980s, though to be fair I never ever would’ve guessed that’s when the movie took place due to the fact that it feels beautifully timeless, the story begins with a horrific tragedy. A tragedy that sees a little boy named Pete suddenly finding himself orphaned and stranded in the forest after a deer causes a car accident which kills both of his parents. Suffice it to say then that with predators lurking all around him, it’s going to take a miracle for our young hero Pete to survive and it’s only a matter of time before he gets one in the form of Elliott: a giant, furry puppy-dog like dragon that can both turn invisible and take to the skies at will. Six years later, Pete has grown up and managed to make a home for himself and Elliott in the woods and together boy and dog ehhh dragon live in happy-go-lucky isolation without a worry or care in the world. Soon however that solitary lifestyle comes to an abrupt end when Pete spots Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a park ranger doing her rounds in the forest, as well as discovering the activities of a lumber mill cutting down a section of the forest under the direction of brothers Gavin (Karl Urban) and Jack (Wes Bentley) who also happens to be Grace’s fiancé (you got me on how that relationship has managed to last as far as it has). Ultimately however Pete is found by Jack’s daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), and soon Grace brings the young boy into the local town against his wishes. Yet when an escape attempt and his repeated requests to be reunited with Elliott lead to questions about who this forest companion might be Pete, Grace and Natalie, along with Grace’s father, Mr. Meacham (an absolutely delightful and charming as ever Robert Redford) a man who’s known for telling enchanting stories to the local kids about his own encounter with a dragon, venture back into the woods for a fantastical introduction/ reunion. Sadly however and unbeknownst to them they’re not the only ones who have discovered Elliott’s existence, and soon Pete must protect his beloved dragon from danger….
Now due to this clearly being built from the ground up as a family film that is meant to be watched by movie-goers all ages, Pete’s Dragon really isn’t packed with all kinds of big, and bold dramatic twists and reveals. Rather the director brilliantly just lets the simple narrative play out logically and directly at its own natural pace, and chooses to really let it be the characters and the relationships they form with each other be the thing to compel the audience’s investment in the film….an area in which it succeeds amazingly. Although to be fair, and I might add in the spirit of films like The Black Stallion or 2016’s Jungle Book even, the film finds real magic in the relationship between its young lead and his fantastical CGI best friend the same kind of emotion on display there also manages to be showcased amongst all of the human relationships as well which we get to witness with such performances as Bryce Dallas Howard who, as Grace, not only delivers an all-around wonderful turn, but who also has a truly heartwarming and never seemingly contrived bond with Oakes Fegley’s Pete that just manages to grow stronger as the characters get closer, Wes Bentley as Jack who manages to showcase a man who not only loves his daughter and his fiancé very deeply but who also comes to see Pete as a son so to speak, and even Robert Redford in his slightly smaller role of Mr. Meacham also manages to convey a deep love and respect for his daughter Grace and vice versa. Indeed there is just an excellent chemistry that truly is persistent between every member of this ensemble, and indeed it is safe to say that it’s the emotional connections they have with each other that is what makes you care about how everything is going to play out by story’s end.
Now although Pete’s Dragon marks David Lowery’s first step into the studio world of filmmaking it is safe to say without a doubt in my mind that the film has done absolutely nada to stifle this man’s breathtaking visual flair. Indeed every time the movie journeys into the forest, it simply becomes spellbinding as Lowery manages to truly do an amazing job of making you feel enveloped in the majesty of nature and also just absolutely compels you to want to join Pete and Elliott when they engage in a sprint-and-fly ride through the trees. In addition the work being done in this film also serves as a reminder of just how incredibly far visual effects have come since the work that was done in order to bring Elliott to life is nothing short of immaculate and breathtaking. Indeed Lowery manages to do an elegant job of folding him into the grounded and hazy atmosphere of his aesthetic, plus let’s face it: you know you wish you could hug this dragon too. Suffice it to say then that while Lowery’s last film made him a director to keep an eye on, I think it is a safe bet that with Pete’s Dragon Lowery has secured himself a place of honor as one of the industry’s most talented new filmmakers.
All in all in my years of reviewing movies I have always felt that the only good, or even great for that matter, remakes are those that not only have a legitimate reason to exist, but also can manage to add something to the story that’s already been told. Thus upon seeing the 2016 Pete’s Dragon I can honestly say that this fits those qualifications in every way. This is because by ignoring practically every element of the 1977 original save for the relationship between the two titular characters, David Lowery and Disney have managed to give us as an audience a beautiful and truly wonderful family film with a legitimate sense of wonder and emotion that should see this film truly become a staple of family movie nights for years and years to come. On a scale of 1-5 we give Pete’s Dragon “2016” a solid 4 out of 5.