For years, the old Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) has entertained the children of Millhaven with unbelievable tales of the dragon that lives deep within the small town's woods, tales that once captivated his own daughter yet are now met with the jaded skepticism that seems to so often come with arriving in adulthood. Now a forest ranger familiar with every inch of the woods that have captivated her since childhood, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is more concerned with the overly enthusiastic logging being carried out by her boyfriend's lumber mill than she is about any silly ole' urban legend.
Then, she meets Pete (Oakes Fegley), a 10-year-old boy found wandering in the woods with no family and no home and an awesome tale of having been raised in the woods alongside a humongous green dragon named Elliott. With the help of her boyfriend's daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence, Southpaw), Grace sets out to find out the truth about Pete, the woods and that dragon named Elliott.
Under ordinary circumstances, I would find myself excited by the prospects of a Disney family film that feels like classic Disney, an unapologetic family film with technological upgrades yet a refreshing devotion to simple storytelling and the kind of cinematic innocence so seldom captured on the big screen anymore. In some ways, it's a feeling similar to that experienced with Steven Spielberg's recent The BFG, one of Spielberg's most unpretentious and rewarding family films in years yet a film that has been sadly ignored by American moviegoers.
So, will America show up to see yet another remake of yet another beloved American film?
One can only hope. For those who do, they will be richly rewarded.
The 1977 original of Pete's Dragon was a weaving together of live-action with animation utilizing the best of technology available at the time. Technology has changed mightily over the past forty years and this remake finds Weta Digital, who handled Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit films, tasked with bringing Elliott to life through computer-generated imagery that is so photorealistic that it feels at home alongside the film's live action sequences. Elliott is a wonder to behold, especially in 3-D, a vision of awe who can breathe fire and powerful temper tantrums but whose toothy grin reveals a dragon both magical and marvelous.
Co-written by Lowery with Toby Halbrooks, Pete's Dragon is based upon Malcolm Marmorstein's 1977 screenplay yet largely, and perhaps wisely, tells its own story. It's a familiar story, perhaps not unsurprisingly. After all, this is a classic Disney tale and it's a tale that embodies the heart and soul of Disney throughout the years. You may recognize the story. You may even be able to predict the story. You will still find the story enchanting and endearing and wonderfully nostalgic.
Shot on location in New Zealand, Pete's Dragon is a beautiful film to behold and a film that soars right alongside the awkward yet adorable Elliott. The young Oakes Fegley, most recognizable from television's Person of Interest, can't help but bring to mind The Jungle Book's Mowgli yet quickly makes you forget all about that resemblance with a performance that is spirited and natural and heartwarming. While Bryce Dallas Howard might seem an odd choice for an unabashedly heartwarming family film, she's actually quite perfect as Grace, a young woman whose affection for the young Pete grows as quickly as her renewed faith in her father's storytelling. Robert Redford, as well, gives a performance that is warm and grounded and heartfelt. As the closest thing the film has to a bad guy, Karl Urban avoids cartoonishness as Gavin, the brother of Grace's boyfriend who is overly enthusiastic about chopping down trees and chasing down dragons. Finally, as the young Natalie, Oona Laurence gives Pete's Dragon an emotional honesty that's sincere yet never too syrupy.
Just the thought of Pete's Dragon likely is enough to make longtime fans of classic Disney cringe, and while this may not necessarily be a remake that Hollywood needed to make it's a beautifully realized and heartwarming film that you'll be glad they did make. Devoid of off-color humor and pop culture references, Pete's Dragon is simply that - a tale about a young boy named Pete and his dragon named Elliott. With a simple story about friendship, loneliness and the meaning of family, Pete's Dragon is a film to be adored by parents and children alike.
Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic