‘Pete’s Dragon’ Soars Above and Beyond Expectations

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In recent years, Disney has been betting heavily on live action remakes of their vast catalogue of animated movies. This has produced mixed results in terms of quality (ranging from the dreadful Alice in Wonderland and its sequel to the excellent Jungle Book), but has delivered consistent returns in box office receipts. The latest Disney animated film to get the live action treatment is Pete’s Dragon, an updating of the 1977 original from director David Lowery. While I saw the original in elementary school during rainy recesses, I don’t recall much of the details of the film. But that doesn’t matter, because this version of Pete’s Dragon is marvelous piece of cinema, a wondrous tale with a surprisingly strong emotional core. When viewing Pete’s Dragon be sure you are well stocked on tissues, because there may not be a dry eye in the house.

After a car accident on a secluded road leaves his parents dead, Pete (played in his younger years by Levi Alexander) wanders into the surrounding forest, where he encounters a massive green dragon. Six years later, Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his beloved dragon Elliot live far from civilization, roaming the vast wilderness with playful enthusiasm. The two are inseparable and Pete reads to Elliot from the lone children’s book from his past. In these opening scenes, the entire emotional core of Pete’s Dragon is established. It’s truly astounding just how well-crafted the digital dragon is at conveying emotion through facial expressions with grunts and growls. Elliot is one of the truly great CGI characters of recent memory.

Meanwhile, in the town of Millhaven, Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) tells tall tales to the town’s children of his encounter with a dragon. His daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a forest ranger, laughs off her father’s tales as embellishments from an old man wanting to impress little children. Grace is engaged to Jack (Wes Bentley), who works at a local lumber mill with his overeager brother Gavin (Karl Urban). One day, Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) spies Pete watching from afar and runs into the forest after the mysterious boy, who is soon discovered by the adults who transport him back into town. Though they have good intentions, the adults never realize that they’re separating Pete from his closest family member in the green dragon Elliot. As the adults along with Sheriff Gene Dentler (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.) try to find the origins of Pete and re-assimilate him into society, Gavin has an encounter with the dragon and is motivated to hunt and capture the beast for his own glory.

The updated screenplay by director Lowery and Toby Halbrooks features plenty of moments that tug mightily on the heartstrings. The movie does open with a child losing parents, after all. But Lowery creates a film that hits on such a wide range of emotional responses, from humor to heartbreak. The fact is Pete’s Dragon is oozing with sentimentality, but what wildly effective sentimentality it is. It never hurts a movie to have Robert Redford intoning wisdom and optimism in the face of skepticism, with that undying charm employed for the purposes of heartwarming magic.

Not everything in Pete’s Dragon is as effective as its emotional core. There are number of song choices in the movie that are questionable at best. Time and time again, the soundtrack features these sedate hipster takes on country music that seem like they were repurposed from some generic coffee commercial. The film does culminate with a car chase and action scene that seems to come out of a place of obligation to spectacle. Though he certainly does the most with the material, Karl Urban’s character is just an underwritten generic bad guy, characteristics much more defined than motivation.

The heart and soul of Pete’s Dragon comes from the digitally crafted Elliot and a strong performance from young Oakes Fegley. It’s a testament to the cinematic abilities of Lowery and his crew and to the talent of the underage leading man that they were able to craft such a connection between Pete and Elliot, one that has the audience emotionally invested in everything that happens to the two of them. I have no shame in admitting that I teared up a number of times at the relationship between the two, especially at one point where the massive dragon gives his best friend a hug.

At a time where audiences are inundated with subpar reboots and remakes, Pete’s Dragon seems like a miracle that flew under the radar before soaring right in front of our eyes. There’s little need to seek out the film in 3D as the effect does little for the film’s already strong visuals and only works to darken the images. Also, the 3D glasses interfere with your ability to wipe tears from your eyes as the film hits every emotional beat with maximum effectiveness. There’s little to suggest that Disney is going to ease up in their remakes of their animated catalogue, but as long as they keep hiring talented filmmakers like David Lowery that are able to craft moments of wonder and awe in the midst of a touching story, they can just keep on churning them out.

Pete's Dragon
  • Overall Score


A heartwarming adaptation of the 1977 animated film, Pete’s Dragon features astounding special effects that are grounded with an earnest emotional core.

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