David Lowery’s 2016 version of Pete’s Dragon adapts the 1977 musical and by and large maintains the spirit of the original. With a screenplay by Lowery and Toby Halbrooks and cinematography by Bojan Bazelli, this movie succeeds in crafting an environment of tenderness and compassion.
In some ways, it seems that Pete’s Dragon is designed to underwhelm. There are no major set pieces, no blazing dragon attacks, no flaring scenes of “exhilaration” that might otherwise appear in a DreamWorks flick about dragons. Instead, Lowery’s film moves through a soundtrack that includes Leonard Cohen, Bonnie “Prince” Billy and St. Vincent.
After his parents are killed in a car accident, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is left to live in the forest. Luckily, he has a companion in Elliot. Elliot is, of course, an enormous green dragon. When Pete comes across a girl named Natalie (Oona Laurence), everything changes. He brushes up against human life for the first time in several years.
Park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) winds up taking care of Pete while her father (Robert Redford) reminds her that he saw a dragon in the forest several years ago. In the meantime, other men from town hunt around the forest and come across Pete’s dragon. This leads to a confrontation, which in turn leads to an effort to capture Elliot.
Pete’s Dragon unfolds its easygoing narrative with a naturalistic inclination. Lowery and Bazelli spend time in the forest, with the lens gliding over the trees and drawing hassle-free movements out of the dragon. There are moments of excitement as Pete and Elliot romp in the woods, but for the most part existence seems like something out of a poem.
The graceful bent extends to Pete’s brush with “civilization.” While Don Chaffey’s original dealt with the fishing village of Passamaquoddy, the update features a small village in the Pacific Northwest. Forestry is the game, though there are no great efforts to find rogues amongst the loggers.
The bad guys, so to speak, are offhandedly led by Natalie’s uncle Gavin (Karl Urban). Even he puts his family first. He has the understanding of someone who thinks he knows best. For a moment, he may have dollar signs in his eyes when he encounters the dragon. But it’s hard to imagine him prowling around the city in dragon fur boots.
The good guys are good-hearted, too. There is a minor discrepancy of faith between Grace and her father. Redford’s character insists that there’s more to the world than that which can be immediately observed, while Grace holds out until she sees the green furry thing sweeping through the woods.
Fegley is good as the orphaned child. He is untamed and misplaced when he comes across what passes for refinement. He rumbles and murmurs, like how Mowgli might if he were relocated somewhere in Washington State. His interactions with Elliot seem real and easy.
The dragon, too, is naturalistic. It isn’t some noisy, obnoxious creature. It is cool, comfortable and comforting. Elliot represents the sort of cohort most people would want if their inner children still spoke aloud. There is warmth and humour inside, a corrective to the raucous blasts of other similar pieces of entertainment.
With Pete’s Dragon, Disney reminds the audience that there’s still love and affection in the House of Mouse. As with some of the studio’s smaller efforts, there is room for gentleness and refinement in the natural world. And there is room for serenity, understanding and even dragons who turn invisible.