Nutshell: while the start of the film may be scary for the very young, and the nemesis’s denouement feels like an inexplicable about-face, audiences of all ages will enjoy this tale of a boy, his dragon, and the family who tries to protect them both. Another lovely live-action reboot by Disney. Grade: A-
“If you go through life only seeing what’s in front of you, you’re gonna miss out.”
I have to admit I’ve never seen the original Pete’s Dragon. It’s just one of those Disney films I never got around to checking out. So I decided to put that movie blogger bucket list item on pause, figuring if I hadn’t seen the original yet, I could give a clear-eyed look at the reboot. And my clear eyes liked what they saw.
Tiny little toddler Pete goes on “an adventure” with his parents, driving through the deep woods while doing so. Unfortunately, not all adventures have a happy ending for everyone, and Pete finds himself alone in the woods. Wolves close in, and so does another creature; a huge, furry dragon. Wolves scatter, Pete is amazed by the living Muppet. Six years later, Pete (Oakes Fegley) and the dragon Elliot (named after Pete’s favorite book) live happily in the forest, playing, swimming and doing all the usual outdoorsy BFF stuff dragons and boys do. But their forest is under threat of being cut down by humans who want lumber, and soon Pete gets found by Forest Service employee/all-around nice person Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), her fiance Jack (Wes Bentley), Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Lawrence), and Grace’s dad Meacham (Robert Redford). But Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban) also got a look at Elliot – and now Gavin is determined to hunt the poor fuzzball down…
Disney has been a bit hit or miss with their reboots: Cinderella, Maleficent, and Jungle Book doing well, and…um, the less said about The Sorcerer’s Apprentice the better. But with Pete’s Dragon, Disney leaves the lands of fairytale for the real world, and grounding this particular tale in the modern day is a perfect fit. Tweaking the story also works. Here, the action is set in a forest that’s slated for clearing, bringing an environmental spin front and center. Not only does Elliot need to survive, but the forest he lives in is being cut back much sooner than should be allowed. That’s the right level of gravitas to lend weight to this tale about furry dragons that can become invisible. Indie director David Lowery seems to be an odd choice to helm a Disney property, but that off-the-beaten-track choice is perfect for a film that takes place…off the beaten track. Lowery manages to tone down the scares for the most part (I’ll get to that in a sec), and blends heartwarming with soaring adventure. He strikes a great middle ground, and I look forward to seeing his work on the upcoming Peter Pan. (Because naturally; Pan was a glorious mess, so reboot before anyone notices!)
The performances are solid, and played without the usual schmaltz overlay that children’s films tend to layer on. Howard’s Grace is clear-eyed but loving, and Redford plays the lovable old coot with a spark of energy and even some childlike wonder. I wish Urban had been given more to work with, as his antagonist role feels wobbly and not fleshed out well enough to justify the swings of the character’s emotions. As the film’s climax wraps up, Urban tries his best to inject facial expressions into the scene in order to justify actions that are never fully explained and come off as an out-of-nowhere shift. But as Pete, Fegley is enchanting. Believable as the wild-child and the cleaned-up kid who wants a family, Fegley’s performance is wonderfully layered for one so young. Can’t wait to see more from him.
While the actors here do deliver the goods performance-wise, it’s the dragon that steals the show. Obviously. Elliot is a wonder of CGI, and it’s little touches like the scar on his cheek and his broken lower fang that lends a sweet anthropomorphism to the character. And while I adore the furry and think it’s a genius idea, I’m betting that’s also a shrewd idea from the sales department; every kid will want a stuffed Elliot after this.
One thing; thinking of bringing very young children to this film? You should know that the opening scenes – where Pete loses his parents and finds himself lost in the woods – are very dark, tone-wise. Young ones could be easily frightened. It’s outside of the overall tone of the film though, but if you have a tenderhearted one, maybe hire a babysitter.