Radiant "Pete's Dragon" Is One Of The Best Films Of 2016

The Disney live-action remake train rolls on with a loose redo of 1977’s semi-obscure “Pete’s Dragon.” Outwardly, it’s a curious choice for the studio, a solution of surplus looking for a problem of scarcity where there isn’t one. But “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” writer-director David Lowery doesn’t know it. Instead of the manic, pointless “Pete’s Dragon” redo that so easily could have been, Lowery has delivered a gorgeous, stirring film that doesn’t just rank among the best remakes of Disney’s current live-action renaissance. It ranks among their best, period.

The picture’s pre-title sequence sees a 3-year-old Pete (Levi Alexander) and his parents suffer a tragic car accident. Pete climbs from the wreckage utterly alone, with nothing but the clothes on his back and a book about a lost puppy named Elliot. He quickly finds himself lost in the woods, surrounded by towering trees and snarling wolves. Suddenly, a majestic green dragon appears! The boy is saved. Like everything that follows, the sequence is a perfect marriage of simple, efficient storytelling and a filmmaker in complete control of his medium.

From there the movie jumps forward six years. 9-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his dragon, Elliot, are living happily together in the forest. Meanwhile, a townsman named Meacham (Robert Redford) regales the local children with wild stories of an indigenous dragon. His daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, “Jurassic World”), a good-hearted park ranger, laughingly dismisses her old man’s tall tales. But it’s her chance encounter with Pete – and later, her daughter’s – that will collide worlds.

Natalie (Oona Laurence) is more open-minded than her mother, unflinching when she stumbles across a cave boy in the woods. While Grace and her fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley) argue with Jack’s lumberjack brother Gavin (Karl Urban) about his path of deforestation, instant friends Natalie and Pete climb a nearby tree. The climb ends with Pete in the hospital and Elliot left all alone to defend the duo’s home from the loggers, all while deeply missing his friend.

The broad strokes of the story are satisfactory, but it’s the bond between Pete and Elliot that makes the film fly. Lowery’s indie film aesthetic, handsome shot composition, and stellar cast gets his characters – and, consequently, us – to the core of the bond between man and animal, between humans and their furry loved ones. What might have been saccharine is naturally sweet, ringing true instead of loud.

The unmistakably dog-like Elliot is perfectly imagined by Weta Digital, a CGI creature that manages to be an ideal of loyalty and unconditional love. Like the film he’s in, his eyes can turn from love to fear to righteous anger in a matter of seconds. Not bad for a mixture of computer-generated texture and lighting and fur. And young Fegley is no slouch either, playing off his animated co-star like a pro. Of course dragons aren’t real, but the friendship at the center of this film is as authentic as authentic gets. The love between a girl and her dog or an elderly man and his cat or a boy and his dragon – that’s real magic.

All of the problems typically associated with big-budget filmmaking are absent here. The movie is seamless, or at least Lowery has created an illusion of seamlessness, avoiding all the pitfalls that sunk Spike Jonze’s similarly indie-esque, ultimately clunky “Where The Wild Things Are.” Here, all elements are working in concert. Daniel Hart’s score is particularly beautiful, calling on vaguely familiar family film melodies in all the right ways, while the soundtrack’s folksy full-band songs lend the right amount of wistfulness. And the pacing is mostly dead on.

The film’s biggest flaw is that Redford’s character disappears for an hour-long stretch in the middle, robbing viewers of his warm presence and disrupting an early groove. But he’s around when it counts, providing the film with a moral compass that never comes off like he’s talking down to anyone.

“Pete’s Dragon” 2016 isn’t just a fantastic family film. It’s a fantastic film, spearheaded by a writer-director who’s so obviously talented – and so obviously hungry – working at the top of his game. But what if this isn’t the top of David Lowery’s game? The thought that Lowery might continue to grow as a filmmaker is beyond exciting, begging that he simultaneously make more everything-to-everyone crowd-pleasers and go in an entirely different direction. Hopefully, his career will allow for both. Until then, his “Pete’s Dragon” is a can’t-miss prospect for parents, kids, and film fanatics alike.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: August 12, 2016
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Director: David Lowery
Screenwriter: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford
MPAA Rating: PG (for action, peril and brief language)