David Lowery brings the Disney classic Pete’s Dragon to a new generation in this modern re-imagining that blazes it’s own trail.
I have very little memory for the original Pete’s Dragon but I do know that I have seen it at some point. For me it’s one of those mainstays that doesn’t really stick in the mind or make me want to go out of my way to watch it. With so many “re” prefixes in front of descriptions of films these days it’s easy to get cynical about a lack of originality in Hollywood causing things that were successful at some point in the past to be done again.
Nobody could watch this film and accuse anyone involved of a lack of originality as it shares little else with the original film other than the title which is absolutely the best way to go in this case. There are many adaptations of things that stray so far from the source material that I find myself wondering why they call it an adaptation in the first place but here it works because it’s a story about someone called Pete who has a dragon for a companion.
The film opens with Pete (Oakes Fegley) surviving a car accident that claims the lives of his parents. Pete flees into the woods and is almost immediately threatened by wolves until a dragon shows up to defend him. After this Pete lives in the woods with this dragon that he calls Elliot -after a character in his favourite storybook- until he comes back into contact with the real world.
It’s a really effective opening that establishes the childlike wonder that helps define Pete’s character. It’s also appropriately atmospheric and emotional in a way that hits all the right notes to get the audience invested in Pete, Elliot and the situation. The visuals in Pete and Elliot’s first meeting are absolutely stunning and really stick in the mind.
Oakes Fegley is really impressive in this role. He shares a chunk of his screen time with Elliot but manages to act alongside the digital effect believably. Not once did I feel like he was playing against nothing so I have to applaud his performance for that alone. It really helps that the CGI on Elliot is believable most of the time as it allows Pete’s interactions with him to feel more real.
Fegley also does a great job when not interacting with a CGI dragon. When he encounters human beings again there are a lot of emotions for him to put across such as fear and confusion as well as the slow burning acceptance that he is among his own kind again. From a performance point of view Fegley completely nails all of these and much of that is done without dialogue. He really is an impressive young actor.
Equally as impressive is Oona Laurence’s Natalie who gives Pete a window into the human world through someone his own age that he can relate to. Laurence bounces off Fegley really well and the friendship they craft is really endearing. Any scene of them together is immensely watchable.
Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the adult who deals with Pete most often and she fills a function in the story that delivers what it needs to but not much else. The fact that she accepted Pete’s stories about Elliot at face value and never seemed to have any trouble with the fact that a child has come into her life from nowhere didn’t sit quite right with me. I get that she’s supposed to be a loving and caring human being but I felt that the should have been some kind of doubt in her head. Even if she doubted the existence of dragons for a little longer than she did it would have been more believable. Howard does a good job in the role and has a good rapport with the kids but beyond that there isn’t much to her.
Most of the other adults are fairly one note as well. Wes Bentley plays Grace’s fiancé but has a really small role in the grand scheme of things despite Pete being under his care. Karl Urban is the closest thing this film has to a villain but he plays it as being more a nuisance than a nasty piece of work that needs to be defeated. It’s a refreshing villain take and Urban does a great job of never pushing it to the point that he can’t be redeemed.
Robert Redford’s turn as an old man telling stories about his encounter with Elliot many years ago works really well too. His role isn’t a huge one but he fits into the story nicely and his previous relationship with Elliot becomes central to the plot at a later point. In some ways it’s a smart idea to have the adults fade into the background as this is a film about children so it’s good to have them remain the focus.
There are a good amount of themes being explored here that will resonate with viewers. Family is the obvious one and the film sends a strong message about families coming in all shapes and sizes with adoption being shown as something natural and positive. It doesn’t make the point profound in any way but it’s there to be seen.
The film also explores the idea of loss and how it can affect people. Pete has lost his parents, Natalie lost her mother at some point in the past and there’s the strong implication that Elliot himself is lonely due to some sort of loss before meeting Pete. The way he forges the connection suggests that he craves companionship as much as anyone else.
Owning a pet is another theme that comes up. Elliot acts very much like a faithful dog who is loyal to Pete throughout. He is very much Pete’s dragon as the title suggests and Pete considers him to be his faithful friend in the same way some might feel towards their pets. Even though Elliot is a dragon the film clearly wants the audience to make that comparison.
I’ve touched on the visuals and they are spectacular throughout. It is obvious that Elliot is a digital effect but not in a way that becomes distracting. Having him seem somewhat unreal adds to the “magic” of the situation in really significant ways. There are some really impressive sequences and a fun chase towards the end that manages to be tense and exciting so the film is full of engaging visuals to keep viewers interested.
Some of the musical choices felt really jarring. There are points where different pop songs are played to add more emotional weight to scenes but none of them really worked for me and distracted from was going on. The score itself was excellent so the use of pop songs was entirely unnecessary as far as I’m concerned. It’s a minor niggle but definitely stood out to me.
A really touching story with excellent acting, striking visuals and strong themes that are explored well throughout. Pete is a great character and Elliot is a stunning visual effect. The adult human characters feel somewhat one note and the pop songs in the soundtrack are really distracting but other than that this film is a good time for all that choose to watch it.
- the excellent young actors
- striking visuals
- strong themes
- a stunningly effective opening
- the distracting songs used throughout
- adult characters feeling really underdeveloped