Pete’s Dragon is the type of movie where characters run toward each other for music-swelling, melodramatic hugs on at least four different occasions, and not once does the director undercut the moment with humor or irony. You might as well call it Pete’s Dragon: A Mad Case of the Feels because this is an unabashedly sincere story which narratively echoes Where the Wild Things Are and The Jungle Book and lives to make you cry while also feeling good about being alive and blessed to have friends and family.
It’s so…eye roll-inducing?
It’s so…surprisingly charming.
They rarely make mainstream movies like this anymore. Animation has almost completely taken over the live-action family film genre, and while sincerity is still welcome it must come in a post-modern package which makes adults laugh at all the pop culture references while the kids laugh at the funny animals falling down.
Not surprisingly, Disney seems to be the only company still consistently churning out live-action family fare, with Pete’s Dragon joining the Mouse House’s growing recent roster of remakes and reboots (Maleficent, The Great and Powerful Oz, Cinderella and The Jungle Book). Pete’s Dragon might just wear its heart on its sleeve more proudly than any of them, sometimes to its detriment but ultimately turning into its greatest attribute, often times communicated through little more than the astonishingly soulful eyes behind the computer animated dragon.
Here’s the basic story set-up, via MetaCritic:
For years, old wood carver Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) has delighted local children with his tales of the fierce dragon that resides deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. To his daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who works as a forest ranger, these stories are little more than tall tales until she meets Pete (Oakes Fegley). Pete is a mysterious 10-year-old with no family and no home who claims to live in the woods with a giant, green dragon named Elliott. And from Pete’s descriptions, Elliott seems remarkably similar to the dragon from Mr. Meacham’s stories. With the help of Natalie (Oona Laurence), an 11-year-old girl whose father Jack (Wes Bentley) owns the local lumber mill, Grace sets out to determine where Pete came from, where he belongs, and the truth about this dragon.
It all adds up to a lovely, timeless and, yes, occasionally hokey family film. There are more shots of mother figures staring affectionately at the titular young boy than there are pop songs on the soundtrack. Director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), working from a script he co-wrote with Toby Halbrooks, keeps any overt commentary on deforestation at bay while also never completely settling on a definite time period (best guess is the 70s or 80).
Of course, you can easily mock it, riff on the way Grace so instantly becomes a mother to Pete or how underdeveloped Karl Urban is as the nominal villain who attempts to hunt Elliott. Plus, Robert Redford seems to be delivering the same exact performance in every movie these days. However, it still works because there is an emotional honesty underneath it all, enabled considerably by the believable and touching bond formed between Pete and his dragon.
And wow is that dragon ever adorable, be he playing hide and seek with Pete in the forest or coming face to face with a cow for the first time in his life after tracking Pete into the city. The animators struck the perfect balance between naturalism and cartoon, making Elliott into a combination of a Shadow of the Colossus boss and Falkor from The Neverending Story, which suggests this film will age better than the original:
- Have I Seen the Original?: No
- Do I Have Cherished Childhood Memories of The Original?: No, although I vaguely remember seeing the VHS box in my grandma’s stash of Disney classics
- Will This New Movie Somehow Ruin Those Memories?: Fuck no
- Does This Movie Feel Like a Cheap Nostalgia-Grab?: Not really, but how would I really know since I haven’t seen the original?
- Is This Movie As Good or Even Better Than The Original?: No idea, but I can tell you this new one is far better than I expected.
- Will Kids Like It?: Depend how close they are to their teen years because Pete’s Dragon’s sincerity might feel uncomfortable or nauseating for those more accustomed to a steady diet of sarcasm and irony.
- Did I Like It?: Actually, I kind of loved it.
RottenTomatoes: 86% – Pete’s Dragon continues Disney’s current live-action winning streak with an update that gives the original a visual overhaul without overwhelming its sweet, soulful charm.