The original Pete’s Dragon was a 70s family musical produced by a different Disney in a different era, complete with singing villagers, a lighthouse, Helen Reddy and a cartoon gentle giant dragon spliced into the landscape of a live action film (taking a page from the Mary Poppins playbook). The film has a fan base and earns cheers for its music, though it’s never been considered amongst the studio’s best work. Friendly and harmless as it is, Pete’s Dragon didn’t exactly qualify itself for a remake – much less one made by budding indie filmmaker David Lowery, the director behind 2013’s affecting slow burn Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
Ain’t Them Bodies Saints stands as one of the more arresting independent films of recent memory – Lowery mixed Malick-ian presentation with the gritty hovel of a southern crime novella. He invested in understanding pain, in fostering layered characters, in seeing the beauty, hopelessness and resolution of quiet, calm and focus. The tragic tale of Bob Muldoon and his wife, Ruth, carries the same sorrow of the best ballads, sung by travellers – modern day minstrels on the lonesome road.
Lowery’s two films, including his take on Pete’s Dragon, are lyrical in structure. One could easily see an old song-and-story man like Johnny Cash or Hank Williams sitting down on a dusty barstool and recounting the sad account of Bob and his wife. In contrast, his Pete’s Dragon rings like a folk song passed down from generation to generation – in fact, Robert Redford’s Mr. Meacham, the film’s heart and its finest point of admiration, and other characters here and there, sing a passed-down ballad and tell far-fetched stories about a dragon that supposedly lurks in the woods of their small industry town.
Appropriately backed by a folksy score by Daniel Hart (and featuring a soundtrack of The Lumineers, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Leonard Cohen and St. Vincent), Pete’s Dragon embodies the spirit of a great folk legend – its inviting, at times, rousing nature joined by a sense of home and belonging. The best stories are the ones that remind us of their storytellers – the larger-than-live yarns spun by loved ones. Lowery makes sure his remake carries the same warmth – we love to hear the story, and we surely feel the comfort as the story is being told. Pete’s Dragon tells a great story, but the way it’s told proves all the more endearing.
Of course, the adults in the film who are serious about adulthood write off the story of this community’s “dragon” as nothing more than fiction, pleasant memories to revisit but a tale not even closely resembling fact. But, as becomes quite apparent, this storied dragon is indeed real, and he’s got company.
The 2016 reimagining of Pete and his cherished dragon pal Elliott bares little in common with its predecessor. In fact, it’s quite unusual for a remake in this day and age to veer so far away from its source material. Lowery’s film keeps Pete an orphan, though one abandoned by cruel fate through a tragic auto accident in which his parents perish. Left to fend for himself in a dark, dangerous forest against a snarling pack of wolves, a toddler Pete stumbles upon Elliott, a gigantic green dragon (a handsomely-crafted CG creature) that is part playful puppy, part watchful guardian, part towering thing of legend. The two hit it off right away, and Pete finds his new home, under Elliott’s massive dragon wing.
Picking up six years later, Pete is discovered by a group of locals, including park ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard) and the employees of a lumber mill, led by Grace’s boyfriend Jack (Wes Bentley) and his brother, Gavin (Karl Urban). Removed from his beloved friend Elliott, the young boy struggles to adapt to civil life. Making matters worse, Gavin, a simpleton with selfish intentions, discovers the truth of Elliott’s existence, scrounging up his lumber mill pals to go on a dragon hunt, hoping to capture the kindly creature for personal gain. So, it’s a race against time for Fegley, Gavin, Elliott and Grace, who quickly develops a maternal bond with Pete and hopes to give him a stable home and family.
Pete looks like a feral child, and he behaves as such. Young actor Oakes Fegley, in his biggest role yet, was a remarkable choice to play Pete – much like The Jungle Book’s Neel Sethi, the audience can completely buy Fegley’s interactions with Elliott. His tenderness shines in select moments, as does the physicality of his antics. He leaps and bounds as if he’s an animal, though the role’s affecting humanity is never lost thanks to Fegley’s authenticity – embodied in part through his interactions with Jack’s daughter Natalie (a delightful Oona Laurence) and with Grace.
Howard’s Grace could be one of the most compelling portrayals of a parental figure in recent memory – of why mothers are such a powerful force in the lives of their children. Howard is another who bristles with authenticity. As she tries to earn Pete’s trust, she speaks to him with affection and care – almost a wistfulness reserved for the best Disney movie mama. Think back to the “mother-daughter” dances at the seafood boat shack in Beasts of the Southern Wild – how the abandoned children cling with such hope and urgency to the ladies who work at the shack. Or, think back to another Disney film, Dumbo, where the caring mother elephant cradles her fledgling offspring with such moving grace to the tune of eye-watering great “Baby Mine.” Howard serves as a fine adult lead for the film when the action gets going, but in those motherly moments, she is peerless – career-best work for the actress.
Urban’s Gavin represents a frustrating theme in the film – as inspiring and gentle as Lowery plays the material, he isn’t afraid to add in a scoop of real world frustration. Gavin isn’t much of a man in the film, a shade of his more stalwart brother. But his intentions represent the senselessness that plagues our headlines. Gavin solely wants to capture Elliott to show him off as some sort of carnival attraction – with him the glorified barker rolling in nickels and dimes. His intentions are childish and pointless – you actively want to knock him for a loop for creating such a fracas for such silly reasoning. How often do we look at the news, wondering why Random Moron A did what he did? So often, isn’t the cause for the commotion pointless? Lowery and his co-scribe Toby Halbrooks don’t write Gavin to be a moustache-twirling sycophant or a dastardly, soulless monster. He’s really not a bad person deep down, and you don’t wish him harm at any point of the film. He’s just a frustrating guy whose selfish intents give the film meaning. He’s not the type of villain we typically get in modern tent-pole releases, but how relevant and real he feels.
Like Pete, Lowery is thrust into a new world by taking on Pete’s Dragon. He made a wonderful film – one that deserves to be passed down by generations, an ideal family film in every sense of the phrase – never threatening, always warm. The director definitely owes a hat-tip to Steven Spielberg for forging the ground on films like this, though Lowery, much like Jeff Nichols did with March’s outstanding Midnight Special, advances Spielberg’s style here as opposed to paying it straight homage – an exciting shift within the community of filmmakers who were inspired by Spielberg’s films.
Though, the young director does struggle at times to raise the volume. When it’s quiet and focused, he’s nearly fool-proof. But, when ratcheting up the action, whether it’s through watching Pete and Elliott play or by ramping up the stakes, the film struggles to shake off the calm that so pleasantly coated what came before. The moments aren’t necessarily bad, so to speak, but they feel a little too placid to inspire much more than a smile. The music also feels a little tame at times. Hart has moments where his score perfectly fits what’s on screen, but in other moments, it feels a little reserved for the occasion. Perhaps that was Lowery’s goal – to never fully envelop in the big moments – to save the engulfment for those tender small encounters. He’s not quite there yet at mastering that balance if that’s the aim, but even if it’s not, he definitely has room for improvement in those areas. Thankfully, he nails the final flight for Pete and Elliott – an awe-inspiring moment that showcases in-film growth for Lowery.
But, he doesn’t use big set pieces very frequently, focusing far-more in on his actors and his own knack for character interaction filtered through his arresting tone. This is never more prevalent than when Redford is on screen. A film legend in front of and behind the camera, Redford has, in recent years, had some great on-screen performances (stop reading this review and go check out J.C. Chandor’s mesmerising All Is Lost if you’ve yet to see it). He’s easily the best non-Loki Marvel villain after his turn in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. But here, Redford exudes such a grandfatherly joy as Mr. Meacham that he might be one of Disney’s best characters in recent memory. Really, Redford is so natural and great in this film, it’s hard to think of a better purely supporting turn in 2016 – only a few could rival. Lowery uses Redford as the heart of the film – the man who, in the film-best moment, convinces his daughter that believing in the unseen isn’t as unnatural as she might think – that there’s power and magic in embracing such things, of having faith in the unknown. There’s a twinkle in his eye and a reassuring charm in his voice. He buys the material, and it shows – how impressive it is to watch a screen legend like Redford disappear into such a carefully-concocted character.
Early on in the film, Redford has gathered around him a group of young kids, and he is recounting a dangerous meeting with the dragon he had long ago. It’s clearly exaggerated, but Redford tells it with such clarity and conviction, and his interactions with the children are precious. Really, it’s a moment very reminiscent of mailman Special Delivery Kluger’s chat with the young kiddos in the Rankin-Bass classic Christmas special “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town!” Kluger’s talks with the kids set the film’s plot in motion, but Fred Astaire’s vocal performance (and that of the precious children – a Rankin-Bass specialty), the simple Q&A format and the stop-motion staging give it the heartened appeal to stick around for quite a while in one’s memory.
Really, Lowery might have borrowed as much from Rankin-Bass’ animation history as he did from Disney’s when making the movie. Their specials were never overtly complex or grandiose, but they were always emotionally resonant and cut right to the heart of how potent their characters’ interactions, and the moments that surround those interactions, could be. They were encrusted with a sense of magic and happiness, sailing on a sea of creativity. But, they also never fully “went there” in terms of the climactic moments that usually define pieces of family entertainment. Rudolph did get his big flight, but even that moment serves as an abrupt, though satisfying end to that special.
Their films are stories to be passed down, folk songs to be sung (at times, quite literally – see their take on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth saga). Lowery confirms himself with Pete’s Dragon as a wonderful storyteller – one who knows a good story and the right way to tell it, joining a long lineage of auteurs, singer/songwriters, authors and entertainers who captured magic in a bottle with their work, who crafted pieces of art that can be inherited as well as enjoyed.