Reviewer:   Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Directed by:
David Lowery
Written by:
Screenplay by David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks, adapted from the original movie’s screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein. Based on the story by Seton I. Miller & S.S. Field
Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley
Length:   103 minutes
Released:   081216
Rated PG for action, peril and brief language
“The new “Pete’s Dragon” is nothing like the old extravaganza, offering a more meditative take on the lost and found aspects of the story..."

To be honest, the original “Pete’s Dragon” is no classic, but the 1977 Walt Disney production isn’t without charm. In an effort to replicate the live-action/animation formula that turned “Mary Poppins” into a smash, the 1977 movie goes broad with musical numbers and character design, trying to make every frame lovable. While remake cinema is rarely a positive creative direction, the feature is ripe for a do-over, bringing a tale of a magic and friendship to a new audience. The 2016 “Pete’s Dragon” does away with songs and mugging, focusing on more dramatic pursuits while still celebrating the protective instincts of a green dragon. It’s a wonderful film, an unexpectedly triumphant reworking of the earlier picture, assembled by a talented and patient production team committed to launching a new “Pete’s Dragon” that’s all heart. It’s wholly separate from the original, a complete reimagining.

Pete (Oakes Fegley of 2014's “This is Where I leave You”) was orphaned five years ago in the deep northwestern woods, greeted by Elliot, an enormous green dragon who offers to protect the boy, making a home for them away from civilization. With the woods now threatened by a logging company overseen by Gavin (Karl Urban of 2016's “Star Trek Beyond”), Pete is exposed to Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard of 2013's “Jurassic World”) , a forest ranger who can’t believe a little child has managed to remain alive for this long. Pete shares stories and drawings of Elliot, but Grace has trouble putting the clues together, looking for help from her dad, Meacham (Robert Redford 2014's "Captain America: The Winter Soldier"), who always talked of a brief run-in with a green dragon, but nobody believed him. While Pete begins to bond with Grace, her fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley of 2014's “Interstellar”) and his daughter Natalie (Oona Lawrence also in this years “BadMoms”), Gavin is determined to capture Elliot, bringing armed men with him to secure the magical creature, urging the boy to return to the forest to help his friend.

Instead of hiring the latest visual effects wizard to conjure a new take on “Pete’s Dragon,” preserving plasticized entertainment, Disney takes a chance on co-writer/director David Lowery, whose previous credits include the little-seen indie effort, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” It’s an inspired creative choice, approaching the remake with a special vision that’s determined to protect the dramatic appeal of the premise, shedding broad theatrics to focus on Pete’s experiences as a lost boy and his unusual connection to a kindly green dragon. The new “Pete’s Dragon” is nothing like the old extravaganza, offering a more meditative take on the lost and found aspects of the story, even addressing Pete’s situation with a heart-wrenching prologue that details a car accident that strands the boy in the woods (it’s tastefully done, protecting the PG rating), revealing Elliot right away. Lowery’s take isn’t about mystery, but familial connection, with Pete building a bond with his enormous protector, but finding a home with Claire (Howard was born to play warm maternal care), who’s wrestled with parental loss herself, drawn to the child’s unique situation of need.

Of course, mischief isn’t lost, showcasing play time between the boy and his dragon, who’ve created a routine of flight and chases throughout their woodsy domain. The production actually manages to make fantasy feel real, with excellent visual effects pulling off trips into the sky, while Elliot maintains personality without coming off cartoony, retaining a mythical look that also pays tribute to the 1977 movie, keeping the dragon’s pronounced lower jaw and greenness. “Pete’s Dragon” isn’t heavy, but Lowery keeps comedy to a bare minimum, focusing more on Pete’s entrance into society, overwhelmed but curious with the ways of the modern world, aided by kindness from Claire and Natalie. As the adults try to figure out who Elliot is (Pete only has a children’s book in his possessions to provide clues), the boy grows worried about his green guardian, inspiring his adoptive family to figure out exactly what’s residing in the forest. Discoveries are made, but charismatic performances generally lead the way, including Redford, who’s alert as Meacham, taking care of expositional and grandfatherly details with old-salt ease.

Lowery indulges the obvious, with Gavin’s hunt for Elliot adding expected suspense and antagonism, but there’s no outright villainy, making the excited logger more misguided than malicious, strengthening the screenplay’s humanistic approach. Conflicts may be familiar, but “Pete’s Dragon” still has a few surprises to share, while cinematography by Bojan Bazelli is gorgeous (working with idyllic New Zealand locations), and scoring by Daniel Hart adds wind to Elliot’s cinematic wings. Perhaps there’s unavoidable repetition for fans of the original feature, but Lowery’s take on the material finds outstanding freshness and soul, adding new dimensions to this tale of a boy and his pet dragon. Magic is real here, found in lovely filmmaking and a startling commitment to screen artistry and dramatic heft.

Released any time of the year, Disney’s in-name-only remake of “Pete’s Dragon” would be a delicate and refreshing treat. But it’s especially welcome as it comes near the end of a loudly disappointing summer, a soothing balm after so many seething bombs. Above all, this “Pete’s Dragon” is humble and unassuming, as if unaware of its quiet power. Free of the flamboyance that marks so many kids’ movies, and of the winking references to the past that plague so many remakes, Lowery’s vision is wonderful and big-hearted, beautiful inside and out.

PETE'S DRAGON  ©  2016 Walt Disney Pictures
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2016 Alternate Reality, Inc.



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