Directed by David Lowery
Starring Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford
More of a new vision than just a standard reboot or remake, David Lowery's Pete's Dragon preserves the heart of the 1977 original while injecting modern realness and adventure. While there's something to be said about the Disney-fied, joyful, and a tad scary, original film, this new take on a familiar story fits perfectly into Disney's new direction of reimagining their best stories in more mature ways.
Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a mop-headed little boy, orphaned in the middle of the forest after a car accident with his parents in which he's the only survivor. While making his way, alone, through the woods, looking for help, Pete comes across a dragon, who he names Elliot. Over the years, the existence of Elliot has lived in folklore and tall tales among the townspeople. By happenstance, once Pete makes his presence known to a group of humans, Elliot's capture is imminent and the fight for the true definition of family and belonging becomes what matters most.
From the beginning, director Lowery's vision is sincere, though the story is a bit choppy. There are major differences between this version and the original Disney feature, mostly in the form of Pete's backstory. While the loss of Pete's parents in such a tragic way is grappling, the subplot of the orphanage added an extra layer of fear to the first story that we're missing here. In the same regard, however, Pete's struggle for human connection, but not wanting to say goodbye to Elliot, ultimately drives the heart of it all. It's about growing up and realizing that sometimes that means saying goodbye.
As the adult counterpart, Bryce Dallas Howard is spectacular, eliciting the right amount of compassion and concern, without delving too much into adult caricature. As Grace, a forester who takes Pete under her wing, she lives up to her name in the most pleasant and confident of ways. Playing her father, Robert Redford lives up the tropes of the cooky old man who knows about Elliot's existence all along. In his first outing with Disney, Redford embodies everything the story needs in the form of levelheaded adulthood. Like Howard's Grace, Redford's Meacham comes across more genuine than older characters generally do.
The true star of the show, however, is Fegley as Pete. His quizzical eyes and sheepish grin meld together as the right kind of adventure-loving boy. There are a few high-flying moments that distract from the sincerity of it all, but even through these, including the time he climbs on top of a speeding school bus, Fegley never seems to lose a certain grounded expressiveness that completely sells it all. Like we saw earlier this year with The Jungle Book, child actors having to perform with CGI creatures shouldn't look so effortless. But, with good talent comes great, effortless, and real performances. Elliot looks CGI, but you quickly forget that he isn't real, thanks to Fegley's enamored emotions.
The structure is off-putting and the third act is way too rushed, but the heart of the film is harrowing and may even well up a few tears. The film means well and works most of the time. It isn't Disney's best live action effort, but it's far from the worst. A palpable adventure definitely worth taking. If I were 11 years old, again, I would have been floored.
Runtime: 103 minutes