Starring: Oaks Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oona Laurence and Karl Urban
Written by: David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks
Based on a Screenplay by: Malcolm Marmorstein
Directed by: David Lowery
Running Time: 1hr 42mins
NOMINEE – Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films – Saturn Award: Best Fantasy Film
NOMINEE – Kids Choice Awards, USA: Favorite Movie
“One of the year’s most delightful moviegoing surprises, a quality family film that rewards young people’s imaginations and reminds us of a time when the term “Disney movie” meant something: namely, wholesome entertainment that inspired confidence in parents and reinforced solid American values.” — Variety: Peter Debruge
Director David Lowery described this film as a “re-invention”, rather than a remake, of Pete’s Dragon (1977). He wanted the film to distinguish itself from the 1977 film as much as possible, and reinvent the “the core story of a venerable Disney family film”. Lowery even watched The Black Stallion (1979), The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (2013), My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Spirited Away (2001), and The Witch (2015) for artistic and visual inspiration. IMDB
Every once in a while, a film comes along that surprises us in a way that we could’ve never imagined. Back in 2016, walking into a screening for Disney’s reboot of their 1977 film PETE’S DRAGON, I didn’t know what to expect. Aware that it was more of a reimagining than a remake, I hoped for something that was, at the very least, good. What Disney delivered was so much more than I could’ve ever hoped for. Reminiscent of a time when family films evoked a true sense of wonder, allowing both kids and adults to escape into a world where they would want to return to over and over again, PETE’S DRAGON earns its place alongside such great family films as BABE and E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTRIAL. It was a surprising addition to the summer’s lineup and stands out as a character-driven adventure that gives its audience a truly magical story to enjoy.
From the opening moments, moviegoers will know they’re in for something special. The film begins with a young Pete and his parents traveling down a small road in the deep woods when a deer scampers into their path, causing an accident. The youngster, who is the only survivor, now finds himself alone. As he wanders away from the accident and deeper into the forest, he eventually meets a large green dragon. The two characters bond in an incredibly moving scene that will immediately capture your heart as it sets up the emotional tone for the story. The film then jumps ahead six years, with Pete (Oaks Fegley) still living in the woods with the dragon he’s decided to name Elliot. They’ve built a sturdy home under the trunk of a large tree and spend their days living as only two best friends can. One day a young girl named Natalie (Oona Laurence) and her soon-to-be stepmom Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a no-nonsense and levelheaded Forest Ranger, discover Pete and decide to take him home so that they can find out who he is and why he is living in the forest. Meanwhile, the lumberjack brother of Grace’s fiancé has an encounter with Elliot and sets out to capture the creature.
With only a few nods to the original 1977 film, co-writer Toby Halbrooks (THE OLD MAN & THE GUN) and co-writer/director David Lowery (THE GREEN KNIGHT) have decided to give audiences a completely new story with a very different tone (no musical numbers in this version). Coming from the indie world, where his last movie was the low-budget AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS, Lowery’s independent roots turn out to be just what the film needed. He has created a well-crafted and thought-out piece of entertainment. He never insults the audience by placing action or visual effects where they don’t belong. Along with Halbrooks, they stay true to the real story – a simple tale that examines the true meaning of family and our need to always protect those whom we truly love. The filmmakers show an amazing understanding of emotion as the characters earn every emotional beat. A story idea that could have very easily come off as corny and oversentimental is given the right amount of respect needed to allow the film to prove itself worthy of capturing our hearts.
Shooting on location in New Zealand, cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (KALIFORNIA) takes full advantage of the natural beauty the landscapes provide, creating an old-fashioned feel that adds to the magic. Working well with production designer Jade Healy (I, TONYA), the film at times, both looks and feels as if it came straight out of a children’s book.
The main reason the movie works as well as it does emotionally is a result of the strong performances given by the entire cast, and I’m not only talking about the human actors. The special effects artists created an amazing dragon character in Elliot. He is not only a technical achievement that looks amazing but is also given just the right amount of personality to make him feel like a real living being. Mixed with the grunts that are Elliot’s voice (created by actor John Kassir), viewers are given a fully realized character who is organic to the world that has been created, making us believe that this big, loveable dragon is not only real but also maybe, just maybe, if we wish hard enough, we may one day discover that creatures like this actually exist in the real world.
Both Robert Redford (BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID) and Bryce Dallas Howard (JURASSIC WORLD) are great in their roles as the two adults who come into Pete’s life. Howard effectively plays Grace with a wonderful motherly charm that endears us to her as she grows to care for our young hero. Meanwhile, Redford plays Grace’s father, Meacham, a man who believes he once saw the legendary Millhaven Dragon and revels in telling stories about his encounter to the neighboring kids. When creating a character who believes he’s seen something most people feel is just a tall tale, some filmmakers may have gone for the humorous portrayal by making him a little crazy or maybe even a drunk (similar to his counterpart, Lampie, from the original film). Fortunately, Redford is allowed the freedom to give the character a more respectful portrayal, playing him as a charming older man whose sanity we never doubt and whose kindness towards the kids of the town makes us love him even more.
But even with all that the film has going for it, it’s the child performers who really shine. Young Oakes Fegley (WONDERSTRUCK) is wonderful as Pete and may be the main reason the film has so much heart without ever feeling fake. Being a young actor who hadn’t done much before being cast as Pete, he is one of those child performers that seems like a natural-born actor. His performance is endearing as he plays a lost feral boy who doesn’t know what to make of the world he is brought into when found. His relationship with Elliot is fantastic as Fegley performs a wide array of emotions in such a natural way that it allows the audience to not only believe in the relationship between a boy and his dragon but also want to invest their time in it. The first moments we get with Fegley’s Pete as he runs through the woods with Elliot are emotional, entertaining and magical. Fegley handles all the emotions in such an honest manner that Pete’s love for Elliot feels completely genuine and the film is much better off because of it.
Pete’s friendship with Elliot isn’t the only thing that brings some real heart into the film. As he starts to feel more comfortable with his newfound family, Fegley plays Pete’s feelings towards the other human characters in a perfectly understated way. It’s his relationship with the young Natalie that works best and this bond is made even stronger by the amazing performance given by the other young performer in the film, Oona Laurence (THE BEGUILED). She effectively gives Natalie an innocent quality that only adds to her character’s caring nature, as well as her relationship with Pete.
PETE’S DRAGON is a movie that is going to surprise a lot of people. I find it strange that with all of the pointless reboots of beloved Disney family films like THE LION KING, ALADDIN and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST that have gone on to make a ton of money (all over a billion dollars worldwide), it is the best one that is the least seen. The creative team over at Disney delivers a sincere, old-fashioned fantasy for the entire family. Filled with the right amount of adventure, drama, magic and wonder, the filmmakers refused to settle for second best and instead, not only have they made one of the best family films of 2016 but also one of the best overall films of that year.
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