Director: David Lowery
Writers: David Lowery (screenplay), Toby Halbrooks (screenplay)
Stars: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Karl Urban
Synopsis: The adventures of an orphaned boy named Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just so happens to be a dragon.
The early days of the summer blockbuster was a magical era, producing films of epic excitement on a grand scale without sacrificing genuine honesty, drama, or affable themes. Adults grew up with these films for not just speaking to them so personally, but because it arguably made them better people, a trait most evident in the very best fables and fairy tales of old. David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon looks to this past, and simultaneously with its indie spirit, ahead to the future. It is genuine, human, and simultaneously fantastical and grounded. It is also the most honest and soulful fairy tale Hollywood has given us in years.
It’s easy to forget that Pete’s Dragon is yet another entry in Disney’s string of live-action remakes, and that doesn’t really matter; aside from having an orphan boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) who befriends a dragon he names Elliot, David Lowery’s film shares little to no connection with the original (yet far from classic) film from 1977. In this version, we follow orphan boy Pete, who due to unfortunate circumstances loses his family while on a trip in the woods (an opening that will go down as one of the most devastating moments in Disney history) and ends up finding survival by means of a large furry dragon. He names this dragon Elliot, after his favorite children’s book, and there he and Elliot reside together for the next 6 years. That is until he is discovered by forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) who intentionally takes Pete in as a sort-of mother figure. What follows, well, let’s just say it gets real.
Watching a now 11-year old Pete adjust to civilization after 6 years in isolation is presented as it would really be; it is saddening. And in its sadness the film’s true star emerges, that of co-writer and director David Lowery himself. Lowery’s flair and experience for indie filmmaking (present in Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) is so uncannily blended with the existing Disney formula, making the most gorgeous version of this story imaginable. His direction is artful and masterful, the cinematography is stunning, and his pacing never rushes along. How great it is to get a family film that doesn’t feel the need to zip along so rapidly, and instead take its honorable time. Lowery certainly shows more than he tells, but he also makes you feel, and the ability to inform by being felt is one of the most admirable talents for any director who has it, and Lowery has it. He trusts his audience, and we come to trust him.
With Lowery as the film’s unofficial star, the film still wouldn’t work without the right Pete or the right Elliot. Oakes Fegley continues 2016’s streak of winning child performances, and his depictions of childhood loneliness and isolation, for a child who ultimately has no family, is wonderfully authentic. It’s not all dour and drab, as Pete does strike a gorgeous friendship with young Natalie (Oona Laurence, easily one of the best child actresses working today). And yet, it is Pete’s interactions with Elliot the dragon that are at the heart of the film, with their relationship fully established in a nearly wordless first third; pitch perfect filmmaking and storytelling from Lowery. The digital artists behind Elliot’s facial expressions cannot be praised enough, and how that translates to the film’s thematic notions goes beyond the realms of digital artistry.
Pete’s Dragon is a surprisingly weighted film that deals with loneliness, recovery from long-term isolation, and the preciousness of nature, all of which only scratches the surface. At its core, it’s a film dealing with the repercussions of unaccepting that of which are unknown or understandable, but more importantly the rifts and disagreements that brings upon family. Grace and her father (a wonderful Robert Redford) don’t just not see eye to eye on the existence of Elliot, but ultimately on the natural world itself, and it’s easy to sense that a distance has formed between them. Gavin’s (Karl Urban) lust for capturing Elliot is fueled the disagreements he has working for his brother Jack (Wes Bentley); “I always thought I could count on family,” Gavin says at one point in the film, essentially creating a character who is less villainous and more in pain. These rifts between family members justify each character’s instincts and motivations, with Lowery even completing their arcs in a wonderfully executed bridge sequence, one that could have easily went for bombast and instead chooses restraint.
But in the end, familial love and understanding prevails, wrapped up in a beautiful epilogue that sums up the film’s notions in a well-earned bow. Sure, it follows the Disney formula perhaps too faithfully for some, with only a few narrative contrivances thrown in for good measure, but for how often I say a film should be “how” it’s about versus “what” (thank you for the quote Roger Ebert) it’s great to see Lowery have faith in simplicity and subtlety, making way for genuine authenticity. Just like Elliot, the film has a heart and soul, further amplified in aesthetical choices from Daniel Hart’s beautiful folk-inspired score (one of the best scores of the year), and a handful of gorgeous original songs by the likes of The Lumineers and Lindsay Stirling.
In what can only be considered a truly mediocre summer movie season, Pete’s Dragon emerges with honesty and authentic beauty, and carries that beauty on its wings as it flies forward. It’s destination – one of my favorite films of the year.
Overall Grade: A
Hear our full review on Episode 182: