So here’s a surprise: Disney’s Pete’s Dragon remake is one of the summer’s better movies — and that would have been the case even in a summer that wasn’t largely dominated by lousy sequels and tired franchise extensions.
On the surface, remaking the 1977 film about an orphan boy and the singing cartoon dragon that takes care of him isn’t the smartest idea. That movie was fine in places (especially when the characters sang), but it also represented the very worst of overly sweet Disney sentimentality, working to tug viewers’ heartstrings so hard it developed flop sweat.
But Pete’s Dragon caught onto something lots of other Hollywood remakes never figure out: When looking for a film to revive, check out movies with pretty good premises that were executed poorly. Such is the case with this story. A riff on the "boy and his dog" tale where the dog is a dragon named Elliot has promise; all it needs is the right approach.
The 2016 Pete’s Dragon, while not flawless, succeeds because in a summer full of bombast, it’s content to be quiet. And in a story that’s about the importance of companionship, it’s not afraid to let its characters face real risk and real loss. First and foremost, Pete’s Dragon is a movie about real people; the mysterious dragon that brings them together is secondary.
It’s also the type of movie Disney has always made at its best — and in this case, it has a most unexpected filmmaker to thank.
Director David Lowery makes Pete’s Dragon as special as it is
Pete’s Dragon hails from indie director David Lowery, who’s never worked on a film this big before. (Keep in mind that "big" is pretty relative here. Pete’s Dragon is still much, much smaller than most other major studio summer releases.) Would I have expected, given his previous work, that Lowery would prove so successful at making a kids’ film about a dragon? Not at all. But a closer look at his résumé reveals why he was the best man for the job.
Lowery’s breakthrough film (his second) was 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, an oddly light-on-conflict crime drama about a man who just wants to be with his wife and daughter, though he’s in jail. Lowery indulged in all the tropes of the genre — the action sequences and the hotheaded criminals and the doomed love affairs between criminals and the women they love — but he coated it in what almost felt like a fine layer of gauze, muting everything slightly.
It’s tempting to place Lowery in the tradition of Terrence Malick, the great American director whose films spend almost as much time focusing on the natural landscape surrounding their characters as they do on the characters themselves. Famously, Malick’s war film, The Thin Red Line, is just as interested in how war disrupts the natural world as in how it disrupts the affairs of men.
And certainly, Lowery has a similar interest in the beauty of nature and in the quiet meditation that one might experience whensurrounded by trees.
But I’m not sure it’s precisely accurate to peg Lowery in that fashion, and Pete’s Dragon points to why. Lowery, see, is interested in ideas of community, in the ways that people come together to either help each other out or do each other harm. Pete’s Dragon is set in a vivid movie small town that feels as if it were plucked from the early 1980s, but has just enough trappings of modernity to suggest an eerily timeless quality.
Lowery is also interested in process, in the way that humans get things done together, and he has a refreshing lack of judgment for his characters. It would be tempting to present the film’s villain, a logger played by Karl Urban, as someone who wants to cut down the woods where Elliot lives, slashing and burning until nothing is left.
But the logger is not that, not really. He just wants to stand out, to make a name for himself. So when he learns of the dragon, he organizes a hunting party (which Lowery spends time observing the formation of).
Pete’s Dragon also contains lots of shots of people just doing stuff, like woodworking or checking trees for signs of disease or strapping massive payloads to the back of flatbed trucks. Where Malick sees people as insignificant in the face of nature, Lowery sees humankind as a fascinating, integral part of nature. We’re all little worker ants to him, and when we come into contact with something wondrous — like a dragon that can disappear — we’ll attack the problem like the busy little bugs we are.
Pete’s Dragon is a surprisingly meditative kids' film — in a great way
If Lowery is fascinated by community, then he’s most fascinated by the communities within our communities — the family units we form almost by instinct. The director sets up the journey of orphan Pete (played with just the right amount of reserve by Oakes Fegley) not as one of finding his rightful place but one of realizing that there is more than one path our lives can take, especially when lived alongside loved ones.
And the film sets up a great surrogate family for Pete to fall into, led by Bryce Dallas Howard as Grace and Wes Bentley as Jack.
Truth be told, the two are perhaps a little too perfect — one longs for Pete to fall in alongside some adults as rough-and-tumble as he and his new young friend Natalie (Oona Laurence) are — but Pete’s Dragon is at its best when it seems as if Lowery is reminding us why people started forming families and communities in the first place. (Sadly underused is Robert Redford as Grace’s father, though he gets one lovely monologue.)
Yes, there are flaws. The villain’s plan sort of arrives out of nowhere, and it’s dispatched with almost as quickly. And there are perhaps a few too many close-up shots of the dragon making funny faces, as if all involved were worried the kids would feel lost within the film’s meditative tone.
But I don’t think anybody should worry about losing the kids. Pete’s Dragon features some great dialogue-free stretches, when it’s just Pete and Elliot wandering the woods and keeping each other company. They boast the gently rollicking feel of some of the works produced by Japan’s acclaimed Studio Ghibli (which has made My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away, among others). The only reason some of the other stuff doesn’t work as well is that the material in the woods has set such a high bar.
And then there’s that dragon, which is perhaps a little too cute — in the grand tradition of Disney selling as many toys as possible — but also somehow manages to simultaneously resemble every dog or cat you’ve ever owned. It’s at once pet and protector, progeny and parent, and it never once sings. It doesn’t need to. The wind in the trees and the hushed birdsong are more than enough.
Pete’s Dragon is playing everywhere. I kind of can’t believe I’m recommending it either.