The Big Friendly Dragon: “Pete’s Dragon” a lovely, melancholy surprise

Pete’s Dragon (2016)
102 min., rated PG.

There are only seven stories to tell in the cinematic world, but “Pete’s Dragon” wondrously reinvents a story we already know by the way it has been told. Based on Malcolm Marmorstein’s screenplay of the enjoyable-but-not-universally-beloved 1977 Disney musical that tried to ape the exuberance of “Mary Poppins,” this loose 2016 remake soars above as its own special creature. Besides “Candle on the Water” not being heard and no one breaking out into song, the film is still lyrical in tone but mutes the lighthearted whimsy for a more grounded, less Disneyfied approach. Confirming the story’s heart and soul are never swallowed up with special effects and that the weightier material never becomes heavy, writer-director David Lowery (2013’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) and co-writer Toby Halbrooks display a deft touch in actualizing their eloquent, warmly felt vision to the screen. If this “Pete’s Dragon” calls to mind “E.T.” and “The Jungle Book” more so than its 39-year-old counterpart, it is for the best, as audiences come to genuinely care about the friendship between a boy and his unlikely companion to the point of failing to hold back tears.

After a car accident that took the lives of his parents, 5-year-old Pete (Levi Alexander) was left an orphan and lost in the forest. He was soon found and brought up by Elliott, a protective dragon with the ability to camouflage and go invisible. In those six years, Pete (Oakes Fegley) and Elliott build their own life, living off the woods near the Pacific Northwest town of Millhaven. They are never seen until Jack is spotted alone by Natalie (Oona Laurence), the 11-year-old daughter of local lumber mill owner Jack (Wes Bentley). Jack’s fiancée, park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), makes a connection with Pete when discovering her lost compass around his neck and wants to know where he came from. When Grace and Jack bring the lost orphan into town and then their home, everyone in Millhaven will soon meet Elliott, including Grace’s father, Meacham (Robert Redford), who loves spinning yarns about the time he once witnessed a dragon, and Jack’s pro-deforestation brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), who could make a fortune in capturing the dragon.

Lovingly realized without any signs of studio handprints, “Pete’s Dragon” very well retains director David Lowery’s Terrence Malick-influenced indie roots with melancholy and a small-town, folkloric quality. At the same time, it is never limited in visual scope or a childlike sense of magic and wonder. Not unlike experiencing the death of Bambi’s mother for the first time, the film’s prologue that establishes how young Pete becomes orphaned is heart-stoppingly tragic but tastefully done and poetically shot. Though one will come for the charming story about a boy and his green dragon, Lowery isn't afraid to confront dramatic but relatable subject matter like loss and grief instead of timidly handling it with tongs. As the owner of the dragon, Oakes Fegley (2014’s “Fort Bliss”) is wonderful, locating Pete’s arc of a feral Mowgli to a virtual alien being reintroduced to society, not unlike Jacob Tremblay’s Jack in “Room,” to domesticated boy. One has no trouble instantly believing in Fegley’s bond with Elliott and rooting for them to reunite. 

In the roles of the adults, Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford won’t be found singing “Brazzle Dazzle” while painting a lighthouse, and frankly, it’s a relief. As Grace, Howard is a winning beacon of light, deeply invested in a character with maternal instincts. Redford emanates wisdom and charisma as wise, believing old Meacham. Oona Laurence, so exceptionally true in “Southpaw,” does nice work here and keeps reminding one of an old soul, even as a 14-year-old actress. The character relationships between Jack and Gavin and Jack, Grace and Natalie are also efficiently and clearly defined without being clumsily spelled out. For all intents and purposes, Gavin and other members of the town’s dragon hunt are the antagonists. Karl Urban isn’t allotted too many dimensions to actually be interesting, but he’s not painted in such broad baddie strokes as Shelley Winters’ hillbilly matriarch. One of the film’s weaker and more conventional elements, his existence is still more necessary than not for conflict. Last but certainly not least, there can’t be a Pete without a dragon. Elliott, the fire-breather, is a giant lovebug, a decidedly CG creation but as tactile as his fur.

Gentle, wistful and touching, “Pete’s Dragon” is a winner that will surprise the cynicism out of those who sneer at anything rebooted or remade. Save for a couple dragon sneeze gags, the film never gives in to cutesy antics and resists pandering to children but actually takes its time in terms of its pacing and storytelling. Enriched by on-location shooting in New Zealand and Bojan Bazelli’s beautifully sylvan cinematography, the film forgoes too much CG fakiness. The soundtrack has also been blessed with songs by The Lumineers and St. Vincent that add to the folksy, homey but timeless feel. Breathing with the emotional heft Disney has been looking for in its live-action offerings, “Peter’s Dragon” is a lovely end-of-the-summer surprise.

Grade: B +