Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Some Secrets Are Too Big To Keep.

A remake simply by name, Pete’s Dragon sees Walt Disney Studios reimagine their somewhat icky 1977 musical-live-action-animation hybrid, this latest rendering coming across as less of a cash-grab and more of an earnest and contemporary revision of the worrying original, the story reworked for a brand new generation to enjoy.

'We're a team here. Stop drag-on your feet!'
‘We’re a team here. Stop drag-on your feet!’

Retaining the studio’s heart-warming charm, along with a spellbinding sense of nostalgia, Pete’s Dragon opens up in 1977, where it details the tragic events that lead to our protagonist’s abandonment, the 5-year-old Pete (Levi Alexander) left orphaned and alone out in the forest. Befriending a mythical furry winged beast, whom Pete names Elliott — after a lost puppy from his favorite picture-story book — the young boy lives out his days in the wilderness with his new companion and protector, a lumbering gentle-giant with a heart of gold: Elliott the dragon. Some six years later, Pete (Oakes Fegley) — who’s now 11 — has a slight run-in with a lumberjack crew clearing trees just a stone’s throw away from his home, this being his first encounter with the outside world since the accident that caused the death of his parents. Here, Pete locks eyes with Natalie (Oona Laurence), the youthful girl that’ll change his life forever.

This incident ultimately lands Pete in the care of Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), the local park ranger who’s been tracking an endangered species in order to safeguard their territory from the lumber company that’s owned and operated by her fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley), the site foreman and Natalie’s father. To complicate matters further, Jack’s take-charge brother Gavin (Karl Urban), along with a handful of workmen, stumble upon Elliott whilst out in the woods searching for Pete’s leafy dwelling, the gobsmacked lads rounding up a team of hunters to go back into the thicket to capture and contain the fabled animal. But as Pete begins to bond with Grace and her family, he is compelled to venture back out into the woodland to protect his cave-dwelling best friend and the myth of his existence.

'When I said tag it, I meant on Instagram!'
‘When I said tag it, I meant on Instagram!’

Co-written and directed by David Lowery — whose previous credits include the well-received yet criminally under seen indie flick Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) — Pete’s Dragon is more about familial connection and what it means to belong as opposed to magic and mystery (or the conflicts that could arise between Grace and her partner), the Texan filmmaker ditching all the theatrics for a more meditative take on the material. Opening with a heartbreaking prologue (one that’s quite dark for a Disney pic), Lowery reveals Elliott almost straight away, highlighting the boy’s connection with the enormous green monster from the get-go; this before our hero finds a home with Grace, who’s drawn to Pete’s singular situation of need, having struggled with the loss of her own mother. With that said, Pete’s Dragon isn’t a weighty flick, even if Lowery keeps the comedy to a minimum, the screenplay he co-wrote with Toby Halbrooks, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013), focusing mainly on the young lad’s re-entry into society — Pete awed by the ever-changing ways of the world around him — and the kindness he receives from Grace and Natalie.

Set in the Pacific Northwest (but a more enchanted version), and shot in and around New Zealand, Pete’s Dragon looks rather sublime, the cinematography by Bojan Bazelli, The Lone Ranger (2013), capturing the story’s sense of green-y wonder (along with its eco-friendly sub-text), and the folksy score by Daniel Hart, Comet (2014), adding wind beneath Elliott’s cinematic wings, the whole film enjoying a timeless kinda aura.

How to Train Your Dragon
How to Train Your Dragon

Unlike the scaly dragons that we’re used to seeing in Game of Thrones (2011) for instance, who have a cold sorta exterior, Elliott resembles an overgrown puppy-dog, complete with a fuzzy outer shell, big innocent eyes and a wobbly flight pattern, the 20-foot tall Goliath retaining his distinctive lower jaw and greenness without coming across as too cartoony, Weta Digital creating a lovable creature that many of us would want to cuddle up with — think Falkor from The Never-Ending Story (1984). Scenes where Pete and Elliott play fetch and hide-and-seek in the thickets are well choreographed, too, these illustrating how Elliott has been able to remain hidden for all this time. And while there are no songs or musical numbers in this revamp, there is, however, a terrific little hymn that actually plays into the plot.

Charismatic performances generally propel the narrative, with relative newcomer Oakes Fegley, This Is Where I Leave You (2014), conveying the sensitivity and resilience needed to sell the role of Pete, a child capable of surviving out in the harsh conditions of the wild. Likewise, his co-star Oona Laurence, Southpaw (2015), is equally as charismatic, the 14-year-old proving that she has what it takes to command the screen, even at such an early age. Bryce Dallas Howard, Jurassic World (2015), is warm and wonderful as Grace, radiating maternal care throughout all of her scenes while Karl Urban, Star Trek (2009), is well rounded as logger Gavin, instilling a smidgen of antagonism to the flick, even if his character is more misguided than mean. Last but not least is Robert Redford, The Horse Whisperer (1998), who adds gravitas to proceedings as Grace’s father and wood carver Mr. Meacham, a local elder known for his tall tales of a brief run-in he had with an emerald dragon some time ago, which he recites to the Millhaven kids.

Look Closer
Look Closer

Old-fashioned in all the right ways, Pete’s Dragon takes us back to the days when the Mouse House was celebrated for producing high quality entertainment that the whole family could enjoy, the film teaching us to never limit our imagination and be open to seeing beyond what our eyes allow us to see. Inspired by movies such as The Black Stallion (1979), early Spielberg and the work of Hayao Miyazaki, Pete’s Dragon is a surprise triumph — one that truly soars!

4 / 5 – Recommended

Reviewed by Mr. Movie

Pete’s Dragon is released through Disney Australia