In a summer full of remakes and sequels in which the fate of the universe always seems to be at stake, it’s kind of nice to see one that’s just about one small boy. Granted, there’s a huge dragon — he’s right there in the title — but David Lowery’s remake of the 1977 Disney film has something even the original might not have had: heart.
It’s also a movie about sadness, and again, in a summer of bombast, that’s refreshing and cathartic. Where the original was bright, semi-animated and musical, Lowery instead starts off darkly. A family is out for “an adventure,” heading to a campsite in the Pacific Northwest (played by New Zealand in a tour-de-force performance), when four-year-old Pete is suddenly orphaned in a car accident.
Brave and somewhat in shock, Pete doesn’t have to face any inner dragons lost in the wilderness. One finds him, and adopts him. They’re two lost boys, perhaps, and though Lowery’s script threatens to turn into another take on The Jungle Book, that ends up being a very small detour.
This forest hiding Pete (Oakes Fegley) and Elliott the Dragon (John Kassir) is turning into a less and less effective hiding place. The logging industry encroaches, despite legends and folk songs of dragons in the woods. And the loggers aren’t really villains; they’re just trying to compete. Led by brothers Jack (Wes Bentley) and Gavin (Karl Urban), there’s a bit of a struggle about how deep they can cut, but forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) still plans on marrying Jack, so there’s no judgment here.
When all these characters collide with Pete, and the slightly more money-driven Gavin discovers Elliott, the focus still stays on Pete and his sense of family. The plot doesn’t make Elliott’s existence a secret. From the very beginning, folksy patriarch Old Man Meacham (Robert Redford) has been telling people stories of his long ago encounter; it’s just that no adult believes him. And so Redford gets to serve as a bit of a framing device, and you can call this a fable — it is, also, set in the mythical time of the early 1980s, in a small town with no rock and roll nor even brand names.
Cinematographer Bojan Bozelli shoots much of it in muted golden hues with deep blue shadows. Melancholy infuses the story, but it has a strong dose of magic and hope. Redford is the kind of actor that can deliver the message with a frankness that doesn’t feel hokey — and if Lowery meant to deliver a subtext of faith (and it does sound like it), it goes down smoothly. You can safely remain with scales over your eyes if you’d like, though this dragon is actually furry.
This is a reimagining more than a remake, though there are echoes of the original 2D animated Elliott (done by those who would become Don Bluth Productions) in the CG version. The dragon acts like a loyal and protective dog, with an intelligence that projects empathy without being preternatural. And he doesn’t sing. The songs here are strictly background — no “Candle on the Water,” no “Brazzle Dazzle Day” (more an overcast Threaten to Drizzle Day). And it’s also kind of nice that you probably aren’t familiar with the soundtrack instead of being hammered over the head with karaoke rock night favorites.
My first reaction was that Pete’s Dragon is the kind of live-action movie that Disney used to make, but no, I think it’s more accurate to say that it is the kind of movie that I imagined they used to make. It’s a true family film about family, small in scale but big in emotion.