Pete’s Dragon is a remake of a 1977 Disney musical-comedy about the friendship between an orphaned human boy and a fat, crudely animated green dragon. While not a total flop, the original film is hardly a Disney classic and at first glance appears to be a dubious choice of source material for a contemporary adaptation. Thankfully the studio made the somewhat surprising decision to hire David Lowery, the American independent filmmaker behind 2013’s Sundance hit Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, to write and direct. In Lowery’s hands, Pete’s Dragon becomes a tender, nuanced drama about the connection between a boy and a dragon that bears little resemblance to the goofy, cornball 70’s musical, resulting in one of those rare cinematic remakes that manages to not only match, but actually improve upon the original.
Set in the densely wooded Pacific Northwest region of the United States during the early 1980s, Pete’s Dragon opens with a vivid, heart-rending scene depicting the horrific car accident that killed five-year-old Pete’s (Levi Alexander) parents and left the boy stranded in the woods. Pete is chased by a pack of wolves and seems to be on the verge of a grisly death when an immense, green dragon intervenes. An immediate bond forms between the grateful boy and his rescuer, who he names “Elliott”, after a character in his favourite book. The film flashes forward six years to show us a now eleven-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegley) having survived in the woods with Elliott’s help and protection. Lowery devotes the remainder of the first act to a lovely extended sequence of Pete and Elliott’s shared existence, a combination of free-spirited adventure and mutual support and affection.
Of course none of this would work if Elliott were anything less than a fully realised character in his own right. Designed and animated by the same New Zealand based digital visual effects company behind Peter Jackson’s magnificently mercurial Smaug, Elliott is a beautifully rendered creature with a distinct personality. Playful, sweet, curious, loyal, brave and generous with soft fur and large, expressive, Labrador-like eyes, Elliott is easy to empathise with and relate to. Despite lacking Smaug’s loquaciousness, Elliott ably communicates with Pete and the audience via a combination of facial expressions, body language and canine and feline like vocalizations. He’s a CGI dragon with a soul and because of this the relationship between him and Pete (the film’s emotional core) reads not as pet and owner but as two members of a family.
That family is threatened when a lumberjack crew led by brothers Jack (Wes Bentley) and Gavin (Karl Urban) begin logging the area around Pete and Elliott’s home. Pete is captured and bundled off to the nearest hospital by the concerned adults after being spotted by Jack’s young daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). When Elliott later wakes from a nap and realizes that Pete is missing the dragon sets off on a frantic mission to find the boy, accidentally alerting Gavin to his existence in the process. While Gavin marshals his men into a hunting party Pete escapes from the hospital and desperately searches for a way out of this confusing new environment so he can return to Elliott. He’s soon recaptured and taken in by Jack’s fiancé Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), a forest ranger with kind eyes and an appreciation for wild things.
Grace doesn’t immediately dismiss Pete’s talk of his best friend Elliott who sounds and looks, when Pete draws a picture of him, an awful lot like a dragon. Mr Meacham (Robert Redford), her father, told her tales about the Millhaven Dragon growing up, insisting he saw the mythical beast while hunting in the forest as a young man. Her willingness to believe Pete wins his trust and he begins responding to Grace, Jack and Natalie’s attempts to welcome him into their family. While most of the third act is driven by the physical conflict between those who want to capture Elliott (Gavin and his men) and those who want to protect him (Pete, Grace, Natalie, Mr Meacham and Jack), the deeper, emotional conflict concerns Pete’s desire to be a part of two different, mutually incompatible families.
In its own delicate, modest way, Pete’s Dragon is a tremendously successful film. From Lowery’s patient, elegant direction to the universally excellent performances from the cast, to Daniel Hart’s perfect, folksy score, Bojan Bazelli’s spellbindingly pretty cinematography and the seamlessly integrated CGI, everything works, and the result is a gratifyingly coherent piece of cinema.