The original Pete’s Dragon came out when I was three years old, and while I didn’t see it in the theater, I watched it multiple times as a kid. In addition to my elementary school having it on reel to reel filmstrip and showing it to the class once or twice a year, I’d watch it every time it came on TV. Those were the days. Thing is, while I pretty much overdosed on it at the time, it’s been more than 30 years since I’ve seen it.
When I found out Disney would be remaking this movie, I immediately got nostalgic. And then I got a little bitter. Remakes rarely work in my book. To my cynical, early middle-aged mind, they’re a cheap money grab. Even so, the name Walt Disney carries a lot of weight with me. Nervous and precious though I may be about my memories, I’m more than willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. Jon Favreau did an amazing job with one of my personal favorites, The Jungle Book. That tells me it can be done.
The thing is, the marketing told me it was a completely different story, which has it’s pros and cons, let’s be honest. The obvious downside is that it’s not the same story, so why even call it Pete’s Dragon other than for the nostalgic money grabbing potential? But on the plus side, it means the story’s creators are able to tell something fresh with it that will resonate more with modern audiences than the original version might. I know, I know… perish the thought; Disney films are timeless. Yes and no. The animated films are timeless, but some of the live action favorites I grew up with do not play well for kids today. Sorry, Herbie. That’s just how it goes. Which leads me back to that trepidation I felt because I really did not enjoy the remake of The Love Bug.
Long story short, I backburnered Pete’s Dragon and resolved to see it “someday” with the promise that I’d give it a fair shake when that time rolled around. I’m happy to say that someday happened sooner than later, and I kept my promise to keep an open mind. I’m also happy to say, the creative team that put this together made it very easy to do so.
Pete’s Dragon takes place in the modern day, somewhere in the American Northwest in logging country. The opening title card appears on screen at six minutes into the film, and it takes less than two minutes for them to make this a tear-jerker for the ages. Think Bambi or Dumbo, and you’ve pretty much got the measure of how this movie opens. Have I mentioned The Jungle Book? Mowgli, I mean, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is orphaned at around four years old and spends the next six years communing in the forest with the legendary dragon, which he’s named Eliot.
And I do mean legendary. He’s part of this community’s folklore. Robert Redford’s character Meacham tells stories to the local kids about his encounter with a dragon when he was younger, which naturally, no one buys. Meacham’s daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) has grown up on these tales, but as a forest ranger she tells it like she sees it and confirms she’s never seen a dragon. But she does see it as her job to protect the forest and all who dwell within. Her husband Jack (Wes Bentley) runs a logging company, and his brother Gavin (Karl Urban) is often going beyond the safe boundaries she paints and cuts down pretty much any tree he sees fit. Confrontations naturally ensue, and it’s during one such confrontation that their daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence) first spies
Mowgli Pete, chases him through the forest and up a tree, and ends up in a spot of trouble that results in her screaming, leading to Pete’s inevitable discovery by the adults.
During the course of Pete’s stay in civilization, it is slowly revealed that Pete’s friend and companion Eliot does indeed exist. Worse, Gavin has confronted it, and after overcoming his own fears, he determines in classic Disney style to catch the dragon and become famous.
You can probably see where this is going, and as a result you probably fall into one of two camps. Camp one will think “this is sappy, Disneyesque drivel.” Camp two will agree (without the use of the terms “sappy” or “drivel”) and acknowledge that it’s the heartfelt formula that keeps on selling for a reason: it works. Here, it works well. It works very well. How well? To my fellow Disney fans, all I can say is make sure you have your tissue box close, because this one fires both barrels of Disney magic that will hit you in all the feels, and it will not relent until the credits roll.
The name of the game to pull off a feat like this is verisimilitude. It’s a term I first learned in conjunction with the filming of 1978’s Superman, so it’s readily apparent why I apply it to something like this. Even though computer animated, you have to believe in Eliot, and for that to work, you have to want to believe in him. Director and co-writer David Lowery modeled Eliot on his cat, and the computer wizards at WETA (the same people who brought you The Lord of the Rings) based his movements and appearance on many animals, most notably cats and dogs. What you end up with is a deft combination of feline grace and instant puppy love, combined with the wonder that can only come from a magical creature that you instantly want to befriend. If you’ve ever seen Warner Bros.’ The Iron Giant, it’s that kind of chemistry. And to ratchet it up, Eliot is covered in soft fur and has huge expressive eyes for that instant heartstring connection. It’s such a classic Disney move ripped straight from Walt’s old playbook, and yet, how can you argue against it? It’s Disney, after all!
The rest of the tale comes down to simple, direct storytelling that’s not afraid to go headlong into the kind of oft-tread territory that Disney is known for. The nice thing is, it doesn’t have to dumb anything down to do it. The acting is natural. The sets and locations are natural. Everything feels real, and it feels right. It sucks you in and holds you there for all the right reasons.
The underscore provided by Daniel Hart does the rest. I’m previously unfamiliar with Hart as a composer, but he’s on my radar now. The base level of this score feels like the kind of folksy, North American and/or Celtic instrumental like you might find on a rack of in-store CDs in a Bed Bath & Beyond alongside a mix of nature sounds and weirdly-mixed classic albums, but that’s only the first layer of this music. That sets the tone. After that, he gives it some fitting levels of wonder and majesty that help to characterize Eliot and the adventure that unfolds. I don’t yet know how well the soundtrack plays on its own, but it most definitely services the movie in a way that lifts it emotionally.
The total package comes across as a near-perfect Disney film, the kind that sits on the shelf alongside the classics and will hopefully someday be numbered among them. It’s unfortunate that more people haven’t seen this film. I suspect it’s probably for the same reasons I didn’t see it at first. At least for my part I can blog about it and do my part to help correct that oversight. Not once while I watched this did I think of snake oil salesmen or lighthouses, which are most definitely hallmarks of the original. This one has all of the original’s soul, but it stands on its own. Pete’s Dragon is a winner, meant for the kids or the kids at heart.