During an age when most movies aimed at the preteen demographic have bright colors and loud noises exploding from practically every frame, Pete’s Dragon succeeds by taking the opposite approach.
This charming remake of the 1977 fantasy adventure completely overhauls its source material and shows that filmmaker David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) isn’t compromising his independent sensibilities while transitioning to big-budget studio films.
Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a young orphan who lives in the woods of the Pacific Northwest with his best friend, Elliot, who also happens to be a giant green dragon. After years of solitude, he’s discovered by Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her young stepdaughter (Oona Laurence), who provide shelter and small-town family stability.
But what about Elliot? His existence is only known to Pete and Grace’s father (Robert Redford), a wise old sage ridiculed for his storytelling who dispenses pearls of wisdom such as: “Just because you haven’t seen something doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
At any rate, the creature fears for the safety of his pint-sized companion and his own existence in the endangered forest, causing his existence to turn from rumor into reality.
At its core, the film is a coming-of-age story about childhood innocence and the power of imagination. Amid the obligatory effects-driven spectacle and playful kid-friendly mischief are some quiet and surprisingly touching moments of bonding between two outcasts.
Indeed, the screenplay by Lowery, an Irving native, and Toby Halbrooks — showing some obvious Spielberg influences — keeps its focus on the two title characters and manages to sidestep cheap sentiment, even if it suffers from some pedestrian plotting and one-dimensional villainy courtesy of an overzealous logger (Karl Urban).
Many kiddos should identify with Pete, who’s played by newcomer Fegley with appropriate wide-eyed charisma as he and Elliot share feelings of isolation and abandonment by sequestering themselves away from society.
While the tendency might have been to make the cheesy original (which mixed live action and hand-drawn animation) even bigger, Lowery chose to scale things back in both its tone and premise, removing most of the low-brow slapstick and all of the Helen Reddy musical numbers.
Instead of broad and cartoonish, his Pete’s Dragon is vivid and intimate. Whether audiences approve is another question, but here’s hoping that Lowery’s ambitious vision takes flight instead of going down in flames.