In a cinematic landscape where live-action animals (or magical creatures) are becoming a part of the zeitgeist, Disney’s Pete’s Dragon has a lot to contend with straight out of the gate. With Disney’s other live-action remake of 2016, The Jungle Book, the studio somewhat changed the game in motion capture and CGI for family films. Whereas that movie dives into gritty realism (minus the talking animals), Pete’s Dragon aims to recapture the magical wonder of childhood and imagination. This is strikingly apparent on all visual levels – from the graphics to the larger-than-life camera perspectives – lending beautifully to the classically executed story of family and the universal desire to belong.
Screenwriter-director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) reinvents the 1977 Disney classic in order to recreate the magic for a modern audience. By modern, we’re referring to sensibilities rather than technologies or wardrobe, as most of the film still feels as though it exists in an odd yet functioning contemporary town where the 1970s culture has remained stagnant.
Within this hybrid setting we find Pete (Oakes Fegley, Fort Bliss), a young boy who, after being orphaned by a car crash that took the lives of his parents, finds refuge in the forest with a mystical dragon he names Elliot; together, they have lived happily and peacefully for 6 years where the story picks up. In the local town, we meet Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a young woman who has closed off her mind to magic and imagination, especially after growing up on the fairy tales her father (Robert Redford) has spun all her life about encountering a powerful dragon in the forest. After her fiancé’s (Wes Bentley) daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence, Southpaw) chances upon Pete on the outskirts of the forest, the family takes him in, and Grace’s unbelieving adult mentality is quickly shaken – faster than a Santa-Claus-is-real narrative.
On par with the Disney-appropriate themes of family, faith, and the power of imagination, are the ideas surrounding strangeness and the social pariah, captured through Elliot and Pete. Like in the ‘77 film, Elliot has the power of invisibility, making him a visual and material outlier within this world, with the ability to hide both who he is and from those who would misunderstand him. Through Pete, there lies an opportunity to combat the fear of otherness through community and relationships. Elliot starts out to Grace and Natalie as Pete’s “invisible friend”, but is able to transform into a non-threatening reality once Pete brings them to understand Elliot as a thinking and feeling creature with motivations similar to their own (Elliot too just wants that sense of connection and belonging).
The fact that Elliot has more furry likeability than even some people’s dogs also doesn’t hurt. Seen next to Pete, Elliot’s realism is quite uncanny; however, Lowery makes sure to not go as far as The Jungle Book did, and keeps his dragon true to its friendly cartoonish roots. Elliot has the face of your favorite childhood pet and its demeanor, too. This isn’t the scaly reptile representation of dragons-past, but the huggable-snuggleable version for the newest batch of wide-eyed young Disney viewers.
The greatest part about Elliot, and a story about a dragon in general, is the literal visual heights that this film is able to produce. Through Pete’s perspective, whether riding on the back of Elliot, or climbing and jumping his way through the automobile-crowded streets of the town, we see a giant and fast-moving world where magic and imagination can easily reside. Some birds’ eye views are so sweeping that they feel identical to destination-based IMAX films where we, too, are flying high above the river, the forest, the highway, and the town. These camera perspectives are enchanting and interactive and are incentive alone for taking the film’s fantastical journey.
Being the main perspective through which we see the film, Oakes Fegley turns in a spell-binding performance as Pete. Sporting a questionably feathered ‘70s shaggy hairstyle, Fegley finds an appropriate balance between the Tarzan-like raised in the forest, five-year-old arrested development persona, and the relatable, sociable human traits of a boy longing for connection and family. Pete is experiencing the human world almost for the first time just as Elliot is, and Fegley elegantly parallels his performance to meet this dynamic – finding rational transitions between animalistic growls and the little language he knows.
Howard, offsetting Fegley as the film’s stubborn non-believer, is a solid anchor for the story, bringing together generations, families, and creatures alike to the plot’s crossroads. She unsurprisingly performs the all-American mother, wife, daughter, town darling role effortlessly and is the perfect vessel for audiences to rally around and project themselves onto. Even the most overblown character, Grace’s hot-headed brother-in-law (Karl Urban) who wants to exploit Elliot, – exaggerated for the purpose of creating a villain – is grounded within reality and human rationality. Lowery presents human greed and weakness as a temporary villain rather than pure malevolence as seen in a lot of Disney fare.
Verdict: 4 out of 5
Pete’s Dragon has all the ingredients for a Disney instant-classic: emphasis on coming-of-age, family, imagination, friendship, and an adorably fluffy selling point. Kids will absolutely love the film and parents will appreciate its humor, valuable moral lessons, and visual splendor. When sized up to this year’s other family films, Pete’s Dragon may slightly err on the side of its classic nature, as it doesn’t bring much of anything new in terms of storytelling and is pretty much exactly what you’re expecting it to be; however, it is just the right amount of feel-good and nostalgia for those in the right mood.