Film Review: ‘Pete’s Dragon’

'Pete's Dragon' Review: Disney Breathes Reality

'Ain't Them Bodies Saints' director David Lowery puts a totally new spin on the Disney classic, inviting audiences to believe in a boy and his pet dragon.

The original “Pete’s Dragon” is, without a doubt, one of the most eccentric entries in the Disney canon — an almost hallucinatory live-action/animation hybrid, crammed wall-to-wall with singing, about a 9-year-old orphan and his magical pink-and-green sidekick, whom practically nobody else can see. One had to be either Pete’s age or a puff-draggin’ enthusiast to appreciate the trippy film when it came out, and time has only rendered the movie that much weirder — which makes it a far better candidate for a Mouse House remake than many of the studio’s more universally beloved classics.

Reimagined nearly four decades later, Disney’s in-name-only “Pete’s Dragon” reboot trades the earlier version’s goofy cartoony sensibility for a sort of stylized realism, one in which everything looks a bit too good to be true (including the stunning Weta Digital-animated dragon himself), and yet the story is geared in such a way that we desperately want to believe. The result is one of the year’s most delightful moviegoing surprises, a quality family film that rewards young people’s imaginations and reminds us of a time when the term “Disney movie” meant something: namely, wholesome entertainment that inspired confidence in parents and reinforced solid American values. It’s old-fashioned in all the right ways, from the patient pace at which the story unfolds to the appearance of Robert Redford as its grizzled narrator — the only other person to believe Pete (Oakes Fegley), having once witnessed the Millhaven dragon with his own eyes.

Unlike other higher-stakes remakes in the Disney catalog, for which the studio tapped such “name” directors as Tim Burton (“Alice in Wonderland”) and Jon Favreau (“The Jungle Book”), this assignment fell to a relatively unproven young indie filmmaker, David Lowery, whose “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” debuted at the Sundance film festival in 2013. A lyrical outlaw romance that borrowed liberally from the playbooks of Terrence Malick and Robert Altman, “Saints” was Lowery’s third feature (though hardly anyone knows his earlier work). In many ways, this project — mounted with the confidence and clarity of vision of an old master — feels like as great a step up for Lowery as the “Jurassic World” gig did for “Safety Not Guaranteed” helmer Colin Trevorrow last year. Both cases represent a tide shift in Hollywood studio fare as producers make an effort to ground big-budget, effects-heavy films in the sort of rich character drama alive and well in American independent cinema.

So, while a cutting-edge CG dragon may be the reason audiences pay to see “Pete’s Dragon,” the film’s true appeal lies in its texture and the timeless human moments at the film’s core. Featuring perhaps the darkest opening/backstory of any Disney movie since “Bambi” — and one that could fairly be viewed as Bambi’s revenge on the humans who shot his mother — the film opens with Pete paging through a picture book in the back seat of the family station wagon when a deer bolts from nowhere and forces the car off the road, killing Pete’s parents in the process. Chased by wolves deep into the forest, Pete comes face to face with a giant green, doglike creature (closer to “The Neverending Story’s” Atreyu than the daffy, Don Bluth-animated dragon of the original), whom he decides to call Elliot.

Skip forward six years and Pete and Elliot have effectively domesticated one another — assuming that “domesticated” is the right word for a feral child and his cave-dwelling best friend. As in DreamWorks Animation’s splendid “How to Train Your Dragon” series, the filmmakers have studied what endears humans to their pets and amplified those qualities into the realm of fantasy. Blending the heartland feel of composer Daniel Hart’s folk-inflected score with gorgeous widescreen vistas of virgin forest (in which New Zealand doubles for the Pacific Northwest), Lowery and DP Bojan Bazelli take audiences along for vicarious 3D rides high above the clouds, while also leaving room for games of fetch and hide-and-seek, which are all the more challenging when one party has the power of invisibility.

While never outright preachy on the subject, the script by Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks has an eco-friendly subtext as green as its title character. The first human Pete observes is a forest ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is tracking endangered species in order to protect their habitat from a lumber company operated by her fiancé (Wes Bentley) and his gung-ho brother Gavin (Karl Urban). In a charming moment of mutual curiosity between Pete and Grace’s soon-to-be daughter-in-law, Natalie (Oona Laurence), the scruffy 10-year-old reveals himself, only to be brought into town and treated like a sideshow attraction — which is nothing compared to the way Millhaven will react to the discovery of his dragon a short time later.

As Pete reintegrates into a loving family and Gavin — a red-blooded Second Amendment advocate who sees Elliot as his ultimate hunting trophy — sets out to capture a creature that never so much as raided a local chicken coop, a movie that won us over by trusting its audience and showing, rather than spelling everything out, ultimately proves unable to resist the formula of all such stories. But who goes into a Disney remake looking for originality anyway? A sturdy and sensitively told entry in the magical-best-friend genre, “Pete’s Dragon” joins a long and beloved tradition that encompasses everything from practical-effects classics “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “Harry and the Hendersons” to Disney’s recent visual effects marvel, “The BFG.”

Lowery owes no small debt to Spielberg here, paying homage in various ways — as when characters stare wide-eyed at the off-screen dragon — and though the ambition isn’t as giant, he has actually crafted the better film, one that succeeds in bringing audiences to the brink of tears in all the right moments. (Don’t worry, no dragons were harmed in the making of this film.)

While Fegley convincingly interacts with his nonexistent co-star, it is his dragon who delivers the film’s most impressive performance — for which Weta visual effects supervisor Eric Saindon and his team deserve credit, putting care into everything from Elliot’s emerald-green fur (a nice surprise for a species more often thought to be scaly) to the wobbly way he flies, much as an enormous dog strapped to a hang glider might struggle to keep his balance aloft. The dragon is by far the greatest innovation over the original, which cut corners by making the hand-drawn character “invisible” for nearly half the movie: Here, Elliot doesn’t just look believable, but he sounds it as well, with every breath and sigh adding credibility to a creature we desperately want to be real.

Film Review: 'Pete's Dragon'

Reviewed at Walt Disney Studios, July 25, 2016. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 103 MIN.

Production

A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a Disney presentation of a Producer: Jim Whitaker. Executive producer: Barrie M. Osborne. Co-producer: Adam Borba.

Crew

Director: David Lowery. Writers: David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks, based on a screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein. Camera (color, widescreen): Bojan Bazelli. Editor: Lisa Zeno Churgin.

With

Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford.

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  1. Amy E Tupper says:

    I just want to thank Disney for this amazing movie. Best movie we have watched for a long time. It is a must watch for every family. So glad we got this. Again best movie I have seen in years.

  2. kathy t. says:

    I agree with Mr. Debruge. While watching this wonderful film, I thought of E.T. and Steven Spielberg, as well. Very nicely done!

  3. Connie J says:

    Atreyu!! Don’t. You Do Research? It’s. FALCOR!!

  4. Ernest says:

    “Featuring perhaps the darkest opening/backstory of any Disney movie since “Bambi”…”

    Bambi has no dark opening or dark backstory. It begins with a slow tracking shot of morning in the forest, then an excited community of rabbits, chipmunks and birds flock to see the arrival of a new baby fawn. This is a dark opening?

    It’s always strange to see critics speak so glibly and even condescendingly towards family films, when apparently they know so little about them. “Dark opening”, “Atreyu”, etc.

  5. William Maier says:

    Atreyu was the native boy in The Neverending Story; the dragon’s name was Falkor.

  6. Heidi says:

    In this statement, should “daughter-in-law” be “step-daughter?” — “Pete and Grace’s soon-to-be daughter-in-law, Natalie (Oona Laurence)…”

  7. dalton smith says:

    hard for me to buy into a review when the reviewer has obviously not done his homework. Atreyu???? dumb ass

  8. Sam Akina says:

    Pete comes face to face with a giant green, doglike creature (closer to “The Neverending Story’s” Atreyu than the daffy, Don Bluth-animated dragon of the original),

    The dragons name was Falcore not Atreyu….Atreyu was the name of the kid….

  9. cadavra says:

    About time Disney wised up and remade one of their turkeys (and apparently made it better) than one of their classics (which generally fall far short of the original).

  10. Nick says:

    Bad dragon design. Certainly no Ken Anderson. But the animation here is far superior to anything that hack don bluth could ever do.

  11. gabe says:

    wow major pressure

  12. Environmentalism, anti big business, making the villain a “bad guy with a gun” instead of a charlatan money grabber. I see no replacement for the fun of Mickey Rooney, Shelley Winters, or the Professor, and it sounds like there is no Paul, so no “Candle on the Water”, no lighting the torch, just conquering over loggers and hunters, much of the essence of the American frontier. The Professor was indicative of those who exploited isolated frontier villages, and ignoring the “Bill of Sale” over what’s right was a good lesson for kids, while this one is as simple as guns are bad, trees are good. I think we see how this guy got the job, all he had to do was make a sappy movie that craps on American values rather than brings a sailor home and reunites a family out of two broken ones.

  13. EricJ says:

    “One had to be either Pete’s age or a puff-draggin’ enthusiast to appreciate the trippy film when it came out,”

    No, it was pretty much par for the course for 70’s Disney–Old stars, Jim Dale, Helen Reddy because she was the fresh/virginal flavor at the time, and lots of slapstick on the old Apple Dumpling Gang sets.
    The Ron Miller days was back when they went looking for memos of all the old projects Walt hadn’t finished–hoping another Mary Poppins would come out of it–and you could see why Walt had toyed with the cartoon-dragon idea and lost interest.
    Most of the fans who liked it were….Pete’s age.

  14. wetcnt says:

    Could someone please explain the sentence below from the review? Did the reviewer have a stroke?

    “As Pete reintegrates into a loving family and Gavin — a red-blooded Second Amendment advocate who sees Elliot as his ultimate hunting trophy — sets out to capture a creature that never so much as raided a local chicken coop, a movie that won us over by trusting its audience and showing, rather than spelling everything out, ultimately proves unable to resist the formula of all such stories”

    • jedi77 says:

      What don’t you understand?
      He is saying that at the point in the film where “Pete reintegrates into a loving family and Gavin sets out to capture a creature” it stops “trusting its audience” and instead “proves unable to resist the formula of all such stories”. That formula being “spelling everything out”.

      In other words, I assume that Gavin becomes a stock character, seen in many movies before, who has no personal motivations, other than being a bad person because he wants to kill the dragon. You know, a typical children’s movie bad guy. And that makes the morale of the story too explicit, which is a shame.

  15. Atreyu is the would-be world saver in the book that Bastian reads in The NeverEnding Story. The (luck)dragon is Falkor.

  16. stevenkovacs says:

    Wow!; sleeper hit of the summer?

  17. Shannan says:

    The dragon in the Neverending Story is named Falcore, Atreyu is the name of the boy.

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