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Our collective memories are often shaded by the ever rose-colored sheen of nostalgia, a powerful sensation that convinces us that the memories of days gone past are somehow better than those of today. Often, they are connected to childhood experiences and that is truly what we are searching for when looking back, that sense of wonder as we long to again fill our imaginations as if anew.
Of course, the film industry, among others, feed on this natural need in us to reflect and have, especially recently, spent a lot of money and effort in trying to mine all they can from older titles that are generally thought to be favored. With Pete’s Dragon, a remake of the 1977 Disney live-action and animation film, there is a bit that will be familiar to those who know the original, but mostly it is a far departure, updated for modern audiences, dropping the musical numbers and making it, given the fantastical elements of the premise, a more realistic experience.
It begins with a tragedy that establishes how a five-year-old boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) ends up lost in a dark forest, surrounded by wild animals, only to be rescued by an enormous green dragon. The dragon, being friendly, scoops up the boy and takes him deeper into the trees where the two eventually build a home in a cave and remain inseparable until six years later when lumberjacks suddenly encroach. Pete is soon discovered by these men, and taken out of the forest to stay with park ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard). She lives with her boyfriend Jack (Wes Bentley), the local lumber mill owner and father to Natalie (Oona Laurence), a young girl nearly the same age as Pete.
They are all part of a small community where there have long been storied rumors and tales of a mysterious dragon living in the woods, with Grace’s father (Robert Redford) being one who claims decades earlier to have encountered the beast. When the dragon is actually seen by people, first by lumberjacks, led by Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban), they think it needs to be captured, and so take to the trees to hunt it down. The consequences that follow will have great repercussions.
Directed by David Lowery, Pete’s Dragon is an uncommonly kind and genuine children’s film that treats its target audience with a respect so few films of its kind possess. This is a kid’s movie that best understands that to inspire imagination, it must feed it first. The predominate attitude in movies that feature large creatures (good or bad), is to reveal them in slow increments, hiding and teasing them for most of the film, which might lend them some mystery and certainly has impact in the right movie, but Pete’s Dragon isn’t about that. We meet the dragon–later named Elliot–almost right from the start and while there is an initial sense that it’s too early, that almost immediately dissipates. Establishing Elliot’s presence and maintaining that with the care Lowery does throughout, is one of the film’s greater achievements.
Transforming the pear-shaped, tiny-winged dragon from the animated film to a much more anatomically realistic beast, this modern Elliot is a wonderful creation. Shaggy green with a gentle smile and bright, sincere eyes, there is nothing scary about this new dragon, even if he can be imposing, and I would imagine through the eyes of a young child, be an easy friend to want to have. He lights up iridescently when he is touched by someone who cares. What’s really remarkable though is how emotive he is, and how well Lowery gets this dragon to express so much with so little. At times like a pet dog, playful and needy, he is mostly a creature of great loyalty that inspires whether you’re young or old.
There’s something refreshing about a children’s film that doesn’t paint adults in broad strokes. Too often we find grown-ups as caricatures, with most inept and out-of-touch with the younger characters who always come out on top. There are no silly pratfalls where adults make fools of themselves or rely on the kids to save the day in Pete’s Dragon. In fact Redford’s character, the oldest of the lot, is seen by young people as a source of history and legend, they flock to him to tell stories. It’s a wonderful little sentiment that adds a great deal to the overall weight of the film, a message that resonants throughout where hope and imagination are seen as precious.
Pete’s Dragon is a true treasure, a significant step forward in remaking Disney classics the right way. With a memorable and moving score by Daniel Hart, accompanied by a number of well-written and lovely songs (some old traditional tunes given a lyrical update), the film moves like the pages of a children’s book, and while adults might ponder the ending and think it should be something else, it is, for the young minds it intends to encourage, exactly as it should be. Watch and feel young again.
Director: David Lowery
Writers: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks
Stars: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Karl Urban
Genre: Childrens, Adventure