Calling Pete’s Dragon, the first major studio effort from American indie filmmaker David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), a remake strikes as disingenuous and reductive. About forty minutes shorter than its inspiration, using CGI instead of a hybrid of live action and animation, and almost completely devoid of songs, Lowery and co-writer Toby Hallbrooks (producer of Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip) create a film that uses the backbone of the wonky, but likeable 1977 Disney effort and creates something moving and emotionally stirring. It isn’t only a rare example of a “remake” turning out much better than the original (which here is like comparing apples and oranges), but the best major studio project released in an otherwise lacklustre summer for major blockbusters.
Lowery and Hallbrooks move the story of a boy and his dragon from early 20th century New England to the present day Pacific Northwest. Beginning with the darkest, possibly most emotionally devastating opening to a Disney film ever created (which, if you know Disney history, says a lot), Lowery creates a world of equal parts tragedy and earnest wonder from his first frames. Following an accident, a young boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) finds himself lost in a massive forest. The orphaned child finds a friend in a giant, fuzzy dragon. The dragon, who Pete names Elliot (who doesn’t talk, but is voiced by veteran voice actor John Kassir), functions like a giant puppy to the young boy, who spends years in the woods alongside his new best friend.
Pete and Elliot’s life together is threatened by an encroaching logging company, led by the impetuous Gavin (Karl Urban), the jealous older brother of the company’s kindly and compassionate owner, Jack (Wes Bentley). Jack’s young daughter (Oona Laurence) discovers and quickly befriends Pete, and Jack’s park ranger fiancée, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), rescues the child and brings him home with them. When Elliot starts talking about his furry green buddy, it reminds Grace about how her father (Robert Redford) enthralls local kids with tales of his run-in with “The Millhaven Dragon.” Believing the young man, Grace, her dad, and Jack’s daughter set out with Pete to see the dragon for themselves, but Gavin, seeing fame and fortune in finding a living dragon, wants to capture the beast for his own personal gains.
Lowery never betrays his filmmaking roots, despite tackling a potentially lucrative Disney property. He never pretends to be a filmmaker batting above his own weight for the first time, but rather as an accomplished craftsman doing what he does best. Ditching the original film’s undercurrent of child abuse, Lowery and Hallbrooks instead craft an old fashioned, but impactful family drama built more around finding love than escaping malice. The relationships between the characters are all loving ones, even the one between Urban and Bentley’s ideologically opposed brothers. Lowery sets out to create an admittedly dark world – emphasized by the use of natural lighting throughout – where beauty, hope, and friendship are around every corner if one cares enough to seek it out. It’s subtle and restrained; never dourly serious or resorting to lame gags in hopes of delivering some cheap pops in a relatively laugh-free character drama.
It’s a simple film about simple, but well rounded characters that allows for maximum emotional resonance with every reveal. It’s a story about people who have been torn apart coming back together, but Lowery and his cast avoid melodrama and manipulation to develop relationships. It’s an effects driven story, but in a rare move, Pete’s Dragon places far more weight and stock into the personal relationships. The dragon might not be real, but the characters feel like real people and not exaggerations of small town stereotypes or easily digested archetypes. Everything about the construction of Pete’s Dragon outside of the effects department and Bojan Bazelli’s intricate cinematography feels refreshingly relaxed. It doesn’t try hard, but it doesn’t need to. Lowery knows that the audience will understand what’s going on. He doesn’t need to underline anything unnecessarily because his focus on individual relationships has been perfectly focused and refined.
In many ways, Lowery’s restraint leads to a film that appeals more to adults who haven’t lost a youthful, wide-eyed sense of wonder than it will to modern kids and audiences starved for empty, brainlessly entertaining spectacle. It’s not a fast paced film. It’s sometimes scary, traumatic, and sad. There really aren’t any jokes. It will probably raise questions from kids that some parents might not want to answer. Some might be left scratching their heads and wondering just who the audience for Pete’s Dragon might be, which is about as daring and high of a compliment I can say for a Disney funded remake, but considering that Lowery has already been tapped to helm a live action reboot of Peter Pan, the mouse house seems pleased with what they got. I guess that means that the audience for Pete’s Dragon is anyone who appreciates exceptional filmmaking. It belongs in the same conversation alongside Paddington and The Iron Giant when talking about smartly constructed films for children that parents might appreciate a lot more than their kids do.