REVIEW: Pete’s Dragon
Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford
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…a warm, wonderful, big-hearted delight.
Make no mistake, Pete’s Dragon is a remake in name only. While Disney’s 1977 film (the shaggy, rough-around-the-edges musical is being described as a “classic”, which is a bit of a stretch) was a goofy product of its time (complete with snake oil salesmen and amusingly alcoholic old uncles), this new take on the film’s premise offers a far more meditative and poetic approach to the genre of “family filmmaking.”
That comes as no surprise when you see the name of director, David Lowery, in the credits. Though the surface details of his previous work (the artful, highly regarded indies, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and St. Nick) might not make him an obvious entrant into The Mouse House, Lowery’s facility for tales of outsiders who find a home amongst nature certainly does. An obvious acolyte of Terrence Malick, Lowery has a gift for framing and breathing cinematic life into the natural world, and for essaying our often complicated relationship with it. While those concerns are necessarily diluted somewhat in Pete’s Dragon, they still give this beautiful, heartwarming, and thoughtful film a deep sense of meaning and subtext.
Shot amongst the fecund greenery of New Zealand (doubling for an unspecified part of America), Pete’s Dragon begins as a tale of horrific loss, as a five-year-old boy survives the car crash that kills his parents on a remote and isolated country road. Alone and terrified, he runs into the surrounding forest, where he is eventually befriended and protected by a dragon, a longtime myth of the region. Five years later, Pete (utterly charming and engaging young actor, Oakes Fegley), is a forest wild boy, not too far removed from Mowgli or Tarzan, but with a towering dragon – who he has christened Elliot – as his best friend. But when Pete is discovered by kindly park ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard at her loveliest), the worlds of the forest and the nearby logging town that constantly encroaches upon it will come crashing together with often violent force.
With a great cast at his disposal (Robert Redford has never been more loveable as Grace’s wood-carving, magic believing father; Southpaw’s Oona Lawrence once again stakes her claim as one of the best child actresses around as Grace’s daughter; and Wes Bentley and Karl Urban do nice work with their good and bad guy roles, respectively), David Lowery has crafted something wonderfully rich with Pete’s Dragon. Evoking everything from The Jungle Book to King Kong, but still feeling fresh at the same time, Pete’s Dragon ticks all of the family film boxes. It’s a warm, wonderful, big-hearted delight.