by Philip Price
I saw the 1977 version of “Pete's Dragon” numerous times throughout my childhood. I still own a DVD copy of it that sits alongside the likes of “Mary Poppins” and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” on my shelf, but do I recall much of it? No, not really. I can't put my finger on why exactly nothing other than the character design of Elliot the hand-drawn dragon comes to mind, but it doesn't. Not so far as story goes anyway or what the underlying lessons of the picture might have been attempting to teach children of that generation. And so, while I have memories surrounding the original film on which this new, 2016 version directed and written by David Lowery (“Ain't Them Bodies Saints”) is based, I don't recall the specifics of the actual movie -- leaving me to wonder what about this story was worth retelling. What, if anything, might make it relevant now? On the surface it would seem that this updated version of “Pete's Dragon” is here for no other reason than for the studio to continue operating on brand recognition; remaking their older classics into new, live-action spectacles enhanced by today's digital effects. It could also be that every generation more or less needs its evil corporation cautionary tale and what better way to do that here then by positioning the adults as not necessarily bad guys, but people simply caught-up in their own agendas who happen to work for timber companies? Immediately this version of “Pete's Dragon” feels different than this though. There seems no hidden agenda, no sense of obligation to re-make this specific material because Disney deemed it necessary, but rather one can sense a desire to convey this story for reasons bigger than any financial gain or profit it might earn. Lowery has crafted a film that desires to get at the heart of what makes the innocence of childhood so hard to grasp, so difficult to define and how depressing it can be that we don't understand the preciousness of that time as we're experiencing it or more harshly when it is taken away from us and all we have to remember it by are those rose-tinted glasses that distort it in favor of the pleasantries. The 2016 “Pete's Dragon” is something of a love letter to those pleasant moments. To how strong the ability to believe in something greater is at an age when we don't fully understand the scope or nature of the world or the human race. The best part is that none of these ideas are overtly telegraphed in the film. The film is very much the story of what happens when a town discovers a boy living in the woods with his pet dragon, but through this it makes one feel all of the aforementioned emotions and it is in those elicited emotions the movie transcends whatever it might have originally been intended to be.
No longer are there abusive adoptive parents or a lighthouse, but rather there is a darling family of three traveling along a wooded road when a deer jumps out in front of them causing the father to swerve and their car to go over a cliff into the depths of the surrounding forest. Just prior, the young boy of the mother and father who is seated in the back reading a book about a lost dog named Elliot is told by his mother how brave he is. With no idea he is going to have to immediately live up to that compliment, Pete finds himself stranded in the woods. It's as if the wolves can smell his instant fear as they swarm around the young boy, but the trees begin to move, the tallest of them even bowing to whatever is moving through them. The wolves scatter and Pete sees what is giving them cause to retreat: a large, finely-haired green dragon hovers over him. There is no fire to be weary of, but the beast's large wingspan is impressive in a way that can only be described as magical. Pete innocently asks the dragon, "Are you going to eat me?" to which the dragon grunts a somewhat audible "no" as he moves his head downward. The dragon lays out its humongous paw, coaxing Pete to sit down and as the child does so the dragon wraps both its massive forearms around the child, protecting him, so clearly cherishing him. All of this soulfulness occurs even before the title card comes up and from there it feels similar to a sigh of relief as Lowery has made it imminently clear how settled in we can become with these characters. The film then moves six years into the future introducing us to forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her father Meacham (Robert Redford) who claims to have previously had an interaction with the dragon in the forest, but who everyone dismisses as something of an old kook. Grace is engaged to Jack (Wes Bentley) who has a young daughter named Natalie (Oona Laurence of “Southpaw”) and a brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), who he owns that previously mentioned timber company with. This divide isn't driven to extremes until Gavin pushes the boundaries of how far his and Jack's company are supposed to be cutting into the forest. It is on a day when these two clashing mentalities meet that they spot an older, more feral Pete (Oakes Fegley) living among the wild and take him in, spurning a number of questions and theories especially around his friend Elliot who he can't help but continue to mention.
Lowery's “Pete's Dragon” is one of those films, much in the tradition of great Spielberg movies, where the children involved are smarter than the adults. That distinction here isn't as harsh as it sounds as Lowery is able to position the lovable kid leads in Pete and Natalie as not necessarily "knowing" as much as the adults in their lives, but more seeming to better understand how the world around them works -- or at least how it should work. Reinforcing this kind of psychological state that Lowery is crafting is the fact he and co-writer Toby Halbrooks have set the film at some point in the ’80s. This decade lends a comfort and familiarity to the character tropes, atmosphere and ethereal sense that we gain from both Pete and Elliot being on screen. As audience members who can guess the expected beats of the story there is a thrilling edge to the fact such moments are executed so well and with such sincerity that it creates a tone and atmosphere that makes us feel a part of the lives of these characters and the adventure they're experiencing. And that is from the perspective of someone who has seen similar stories come to life before. For a younger, less seasoned movie-goer I can only imagine the understanding that Lowery conveys and is seemingly able to connect with at such an impressionable stage of life is nothing short of extraordinary. In that same fashion of single-minded antagonists we genuinely come to dislike in that era and genre of movies, Urban's character and his machismo need to live up to his own ego that pushes him to conquer and call the biggest animal in the forest his own is one we really come to despise. This works both as the villain of the piece, the force for which Pete and Elliot will have to fight against when their normal routine or lack thereof is inevitably discovered and broken by outside forces, but at the same time serves as a way to both illustrate the physical and mental bravery our titular Pete feels he must embody. Given that blessing by his mother just before her death, it seems Pete has carried it as a responsibility he must ensure he lives up to. As Gavin tries to hunt Elliot and then take him away from Pete just as his parents were, our hero weathers the storm by never letting that guard of bravery fall. It’s a bravery the story rewards by making Pete the most credible character there is in spite of having the biggest imagination.
It seems this was Lowery and Halbrooks intent with their take on the film though, to be able to discuss the theoretical ways in which we sometimes feel the need to approach things out of the desire to ignore trouble altogether rather than dealing with them in a sensible and realistic fashion. Pete is a young child who is put through the ringer and undoubtedly has to make extremely difficult decisions based in reality -- ultimately dealing with them in practical ways. But he comes through on that side of things by leaning on what many would consider an abstract or make believe entity. It's interesting terrain for a family film to cover, but when it consistently feels that films aimed at this type of audience undervalues their capacity and capability for deep, emotional thought it is refreshing to see a movie not speak down to them. Even more impressive is that it expects a certain level of understanding from them, placing all its faith in their ability to comprehend and imagine; that child's ability to see what they want to see rather than accepting what they do see. Beyond this, the film builds and integrates its different moving parts in a nicely paced, methodical fashion that never gives cause for the movie to slow or become boring, but instead allows for the story elements to fall into place naturally. As for how Elliot transitions from being a hand-drawn animated character in an otherwise live-action film to a fully computer generated character -- it couldn't have been more seamless. It's unclear if there was a performer doing motion capture whom the visual effects artists based the movements of the character on, but Elliot comes off wholly charming and effortlessly funny, not to mention beautifully rendered. The shades of green on his coat changing depending on his mood and the inventiveness of having his actions within the forest be repercussions in nature that naturally occur that we wouldn't normally think anything of, much less that a dragon caused them, are a few of the small touches that make the film feel even more remarkable. It comes down to Lowery's vision to show less in exchange for giving the story more resonance and weight that the movie delivers a story about family and imagination that doesn't simply acknowledge those concepts, but is intent to dig deep and find out why such things figure so heavily into happiness. A lofty goal for a movie with a dragon for sure, but one that is pulled off with such ease it's next to impossible to imagine this story being told any other way.