There’s no other movie quite like Pete’s Dragon, not even the 1977 Disney musical it’s based on. While that film was a blatant effort to replicate the success of Mary Poppins for a new generation 13 years too late, Pete’s Dragon (2016) goes for something a bit grander.
It wants to recapture the “magic” of live-action Disney films, before they transitioned into stories about swashbuckling pirates and repurposed fairy tales. Back when Disney films, even after Walt’s death, paid homage to the frontier life and “simpler times.”
Only in Pete’s Dragon, these themes are mixed in with the story of a furry dragon that can fly and change color.
Like its predecessor, Pete’s Dragon is set in the late 70s, but that’s about where the similarities end (sorry, Mickey Rooney). As director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) , this new film is more “reinvention” than remake, and that’s not an understatement.
In this new version, Pete (played by Oakes Fegley) finds himself lost in the wilderness at a very young age, making his relationship with the dragon, “Elliot,” whom Pete names after the pet dog in one of his books, more of a guardian/protector dynamic.
Six years later, the appropriately named town of Millhaven slowly creeps into Pete and Elliot’s isolated paradise, as a brother team of millers, along with park ranger Grace (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) and her boyfriend’s daughter, Natalie (played by Oona Laurence), accidentally find Pete alone in the woods.
This sets off a chain of events that leads to Pete struggling with his affection for Elliot against his curiosity for the world he barely remembers, intercut with overt, yet still affecting moments between him and Grace, the woman who looks too much like his mother for him to shake off.
There are a lot of intelligent, aspirational elements at play within Pete’s Dragon, as it sets up the forest as an idyllic setting that needs to be cherished, but not ignored. Like the dragon himself, there’s something beautiful about man and nature coming together, but the obvious message about environmentalist values you might read into here is one thing the movie smartly downplays, instead accepting that man’s role in the world doesn’t have to be a passive one.
The real focus of this movie, though, is Pete’s connection with everyone around him. That includes Elliot, of course, but it’s balanced perfectly with an intriguing, even soulful journey he goes on with his new, potential family with Grace, Natalie, and Jack (played by Wes Bentley).
This set up probably sounds too simple for a feature-length movie, but that’s clearly Lowery’s intention. Pete’s Dragon revels in its simplicity and digestible themes, which is why it’s such an easy film to immerse yourself in, at just about any age (and not just because Robert Redford steals all of his scenes). For that reason, it’s the best family movie of the year and among the best films in 2016, overall.
That said, it’s easy to look down on Pete’s Dragon for some of its on-the-nose scenes and melodramatic soundtrack. For some, this movie will come across as the worst kind of remake — meant only to use nostalgia as a lazy way to elicit a reaction from viewers.
But in reality, Pete’s Dragon uses nostalgia for the right reasons, meaning the familiar elements it employs throughout its running time all fit within the context of the story it wants to tell. Lesser films use nostalgia as a way to make you like something new because it feels like something you already like.
Pete’s Dragon, in contrast, is its own self-contained experience, borrowing very little from the source material. It’s not trying to make you like its characters or setting because it’s an updated version of what you love. It’s just a consistent story that recaptures feelings you haven’t had in a while, relying on original, unfamiliar characters you can experience in a more genuine way.
This flows into one of the film’s greatest strengths: its willingness to defy your short attention span. There aren’t a lot of cuts in Pete’s Dragon, which is almost jarring at first until you’re wrapped up in the film enough to celebrate when scenes go on a lot longer than you’d expect.
Because the film takes its time with every set piece, you end up with a comprehensive series of extremely potent and memorable moments that give you a real sense of the film’s location. For obvious reasons, very few movies in this genre take that kind of risk, and for Pete’s Dragon, it actually works.
It’s also important to point out that there are no contrived subplots and conflicts between characters that are unrelated to the main plot. Grace and Natalie aren’t at odds at the beginning, for example. But the brothers, Jack and Gavin (played by Karl Urban), have an obvious rift that serves the entire story, not just to create a more dramatic third act.
The only negative things to say about Pete’s Dragon are more related to what the film doesn’t do, rather than any glaring flaws. Because scenes are given time to breathe, the climax can feel a bit off-rhythm from the rest of the film. In my case, I didn’t even realize it was the climax until it was almost over.
Also, some of the internal logic of the film is never paid off in a satisfying way, notably the “magic of the woods” concept and some of the character relationships. While it’s hard to question the stakes of Pete’s Dragon as it goes along, you might get a sense that they weren’t all that high by the time it ends, which might leave you feeling a bit underwhelmed when the credits roll.
But overall, Pete’s Dragon is a startling example of what Disney can salvage from its more mediocre films, as well as a surprisingly loving escape into a living, textured world that families will hopefully revisit for decades.
Pete’s Dragon releases in U.S. on August 12, 2016.
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