I rather liked The BFG, which badly underperformed at the box office. So I hope my approval isn’t the kiss of death for films that ride the line between children’s tales and mainstream entertainment. Because I rather liked Pete’s Dragon, too.
It’s a remake of a 1977 Disney film I haven’t seen, a primarily live-action film about an orphan, who has a hand-animated dragon for a friend. The new remake updates the story for the high-tech computer age: While the dragon’s look remains inspired by the 1977 original – hairy, green, enthusiastically and endearingly dog-like – director and writer David Lowery strives for a well-crafted realism. Some of the effects sequences are shockingly seamless, and the dragon itself is communicative and empathetic while still meshing with its real-world surroundings.
The story is set in a small logging community on the outskirts of the Pacific Northwest wilderness. A young boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) is on a road trip with his family when a wreck that kills both parents. It’s a striking scene: There’s some heavily-thematic dialogue about going on adventures, and then the car flips in slo-mo and the camera stays locked on Pete, as he observes his topsy-turvy surroundings in a state of wonder. Moments later, the realization sinks in that this is the tragic part of his adventure.
The accident leaves Pete alone in the forest, where he bumps into the titular dragon. Based on a children’s book he salvaged from the wreck, Pete names the dragon “Elliott.” Six years later, Pete is still surviving Tarzan-like in the forest, with Elliott as his guardian and companion.
Meanwhile, a lumber company run by Gavin (Karl Urban) and his brother Jack (Wes Bentley) is cutting deeper into the forest than they should. Jack is earnest and responsible, but Gavin is the troublemaker, and his forays with the company into the woods aggravate Jack’s forrest-ranger wife Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard). It’s Grace and Jack’s young daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence) who actually spots a curious Pete at the edge of the logging project one day during a family dispute.
So Grace brings Pete back to the town to try and figure out where he came from, and Elliott goes after Pete. Gavin and his buddies, realizing that something big is in the woods, go hunting. What follows is a pretty standard story about a magical or exotic creature forced into an encounter with human civilization, where some humans react with wonder and sympathy, and others react with fear or greed or a simple lack of imagination. But it’s a standard story told with about as much grace and economy as you could ask for.
Fegley is convincing as a boy who spent enough time in civilization to know his way around it, but also enough time in the wilderness for civilization’s habits to cease being second nature. Lowery and his co-writer, Toby Halbrooks, find effective scenarios to communicate Pete’s initial alienation: He reacts in ways that obviously make perfect sense to him, but make him seem crazy to the townsfolk.
Howard is effortlessly captivating as a kind and perceptive woman. Bentley and Laurence are both capable in roles that require relatively little of them. And Robert Redford shows up as Grace’s dad, who still sees the world through a child’s eyes, and who insists he saw a dragon out in the woods once.
Interestingly, the best performance might be from Urban. He finds layers barely hinted at in the script – Gavin’s class resentment, his feelings of inadequacy compared to his brother, his cleverness – and creates a performance of surprising depth. Ironically, he’s so good that it’s hard to believe when the plot requires Gavin to be a little dim. The only significant weakness in Pete’s Dragon is that the third act is a tad rote, and could have shown a bit more respect for the characters’ intelligence and creativity.
But other than that, the script avoids spinning its wheels with stupid misunderstandings. Everyone is basically sympathetic, and even Gavin is just obtuse and self-absorbed rather than genuinely villainous. There are several moments of dialogue between adults that a lesser film would’ve turned into overly dramatic scene stoppers, but here they occur half audible and in the background, while the key action takes place wordlessly in the foreground.
Pete has one family and one world with Elliot, but finds a new world and a new family, and the film is smart enough to know this is all it needs: It draws the drama out of the natural contradictions and incompatibilities of those two worlds, and the question of whether they can be reconciled to one another. When it seems like they may not be, the effect is genuinely painful.