A film review by Craig J. Koban August 19, 2016

RANK:  #14


2016, PG, 102 mins.


Oakes Fegley as Pete  /  Bryce Dallas Howard as Grace  /  Karl Urban as Gavin  /  Robert Redford as Grace's father  /  Wes Bentley as Jack  /  Isiah Whitlock Jr. as Sheriff Dentler  /  Oona Laurence as Natalie

Directed by David Lowery  /  Written by Lowery and Toby Halbrooks  /  Based on the 1977 screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein


PETE’S DRAGON is a wondrous and triumphant reminder of the inherent escapist power of family entertainment when harnessed well.  Considering that this past summer film season has been an unending one of consistent disappointments, it’s refreshing and rewarding to experience a film so gentle, sweet, quietly rendered, and, yes, exhilaratingly magical to its very core.  

PETE’S DRAGON doesn’t reinvent the wheel of its genre, nor is it trying to.  Its inherent strengths are its persistent charm and the manner with which it thanklessly updates the 1977 live action/animated/musical film that inspired it and transforms it from a fairly inconsequential and mostly forgotten Disney work of yesteryear and into something with definitive echoes of classics like E.T. – THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL and THE IRON GIANT.  PETE’S DRAGON makes adults feel like children again while eliciting sensations of awe and wonder in viewers of all age brackets.  That’s a tough act to pull off these days. 



The original PETE’S DRAGON has received a level of cult status over the years with some filmgoers, but it hasn’t attained a cherished and iconic stature that many of the other films from Disney’s catalogue that the company has decided to remake…one right after the other.  This new iteration does indeed borrow some of the key defining characteristics of the first film's titular character, but that’s where the inherent similarities end.  Remakes should always strive to segregate themselves from their antecedents and stand proudly on their own two feet as works of innovation.  PETE’S DRAGON is arguably one of the finest engineered remakes in many a moon, mostly because it overhauls the source material in meaningful and impactful ways while maintaining its soulfully congenial nature.  It’s become easy to condemn Disney for scraping the bottom of the creative barrel with updating their legendary and popular animated efforts of old into live action versions now, but PETE’S DRAGON is such an unqualified improvement of the original film – and one that most contemporary audience members are not too familiar with – that it helps erode criticism of this practice altogether. 

Rather compellingly, PETE’S DRAGON is a period film, but it’s an exceedingly rare one that never overtly tips off its time period with obligatory title cards (judging by the clothing styles, vehicles, and genuine lack of mobile phones and modern computer technology, I’m guessing the late 70’s through early 80’s).  The film opens with a scene of depressing and tear inducing tragedy (all shot and edited with tact and taste as to not send young viewers fleeing for the exists) as we are introduced to Pete, a very young boy on a road trip with his parents.  While trying to avoid a runaway deer, the family car crashes, killing the parents and leaving the boy an orphan and all alone in the northwestern woods…that is until he’s greeted and protected by…something.  Flashforward several years and Pete (Oakes Fegley) has emerged as a fairly healthy and well adjusted lad (all things considered) that has apparently been raised by an enormous green haired dragon that he names Elliot (after a character in one of his children’s books), a masterfully rendered CG creation with an adorably canine-like disposition that's really hard not to become enamored with. 

Pete’s existence as a semi-feral being is discovered by local forest ranger Grace (in a serenely soothing performance by Bryce Dallas Howard) that initially can’t believe that any youngster could survive as long as Pete has amidst the inherent dangers of the forest.  She decides to take him in, much to his chagrin, mostly because he gets separated from his inseparable pal in Elliot.  As Pete tries as he can to explain to Grace who Elliott really is, her father (a wonderfully understated and charismatic Robert Redford) develops an instant fascination with Pete’s claims, seeing as he too may have also had a run in with Elliott several years ago, a tale that no one obviously believed.  Complicating matters for all is the presence of Grace’s brother-in-law (Karl Urban), a logger and hunter that turns capturing this mystical beast into an obsessive undertaking. 

Labeling PETE’S DRAGON as “Spielbergian” is highly apt; I’ll even go as far as to say that the film is positively more Spielbergian than perhaps the director’s own flawed THE BFG from earlier this summer (also a tale of a young orphan being befriended by a much larger entity).  Echoes of Spielberg’s past films are unmistakable (the dragon’s name alone mirrors the name of the main child hero in E.T.), not to mention that elements of Daniel Hart’s majestically rendered and sweeping score evokes the finer chords of John Williams.  More crucially, though, PETE’S DRAGON trumps THE BFG in the area of making us actually care about the loving and nurturing bond that Pete has with his larger than life confidant, something that was just not on display in Spielberg’s appropriation of Roald Dahl’s children’s book.  PETE’S DRAGON feels lavish and epic in scope and nature (it is, after all, a visual effects heavy picture), but it feels more insular, intimate, personal, and observant of the inseparable ties between its main characters.  Considering how so many other genre films these days seem desperate to get to the next big proverbial action beat, it’s quite inspiring to witness PETE’S DRAGON abscond away from such overused and tired conventions. 

But, then again…yes…the film is indeed an absolutely stunning feat of visual effects ingenuity, thanks largely to how the artistic geniuses at WETA miraculously make Elliot feel like an actual being of tactile and relatable weight in the many scenes he occupies with his human co-stars.  If he were too cartoony, the effect would be wholeheartedly lost.  If he were too realistically monstrous, the effect would have been unnervingly scary from young viewers.  Somehow, the makers here find a gloriously dazzling middle ground…and to the point where you’re consciously less drawn to the fact that Elliot is fake and, as a result, we become more enthralled with his stature and place in the film.  Lending to the film’s sense of immediate authenticity are the thankless performances, all of which are dexterously played for maximum, credible sincerity.  The adult actors carefully modulate their roles as if they were in any other drama, which is fitting.  Bryce Dallas Howard is calm and nurturing force of reason and good in the film, and Redford is pitch perfect, for example, delivering one key mid-movie monologue relaying his past meeting with Elliot.  The manner with which he provides these expositional details with a lived-in, grandfatherly ease and matter-of-fact earnestness brings a considerable amount of soft-spoken gravitas to the film. 

It could be said that the film perhaps struggles a bit in trying to decide whether or not Urban’s hunter is a cold hearted and unfeeling antagonist, but he more or less emerges more as a misguided and deeply confused man than a truly despicable villain.  Props need to be given to director David Lowrey (an inspired choice by Disney for this material, seeing as his past indie film effort AIN’T THEM BODY SAINTS wouldn’t hint at him being an instant good fit for this material).  However, that’s precisely what a remake like PETE’S DRAGON really needs: a infusion of a sensitive filmmaking mind and voice that can take a more meditative look at this inherent material while not lazily delivering eye-popping spectacle on pure summer blockbuster autopilot.  By the time the film reaches its emotionally satisfying crescendo in the third act I was frankly stunned by how much I was swept up within its deeply touching and affectionately developed story.  PETE’S DRAGON is shamelessly manipulative, to be sure, but the way it harnesses and celebrates its innocent bedtime story trappings makes it a completely winning fable that stirs the imaginations of young and old viewers alike.  In an egregiously overcrowded movie age that’s populated by family films that pander down to audiences, it’s so ultimately satisfying to witness a diamond-in-the-rough effort like PETE’S DRAGON make its genre feel invigoratingly relevant again.  



  H O M E