After a fatal car crash claims the lives of his parents, five-year-old Pete (Levi Alexander) grows up in the woods protected by a friendly dragon he names Elliot (voiced by John Kassir). Years later the now-eleven-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegley) is discovered by a lumberjack crew when he saves young Natalie (Oona Laurence), daughter of Jack (Wes Bentley) the lumber mill owner. Local forest ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard) takes an interest in Pete and brings him to town, inadvertently leaving Elliot alone. Confused and scared, Elliot goes looking for his friend but in the process spooks townspeople like Jack's brother Gavin (Karl Urban) who takes a mercenary interest in Pete's dragon.
While Disney's original Pete's Dragon (1977) has its fans it is not as universally beloved as the studio's other live-action/animated hybrids: Mary Poppins (1964) and Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971). Hence this 're-imagining' stings a lot less, if at all, than what the House of Mouse has done of late with other cherished childhood favourites. In a bold move Disney entrusted the task to indie auteur David Lowery, best known for his acclaimed drama Ain't Them Bodies Saints (2013). However, given Lowery's feature debut St. Nick (2009) dealt with two runaway children abandoned by their guardians, he is on familiar ground with this new adaptation of Malcolm Marmostein's novel. Re-teaming with co-screenwriter Toby Halbrooks, Lowery ditches the period setting along with the musical numbers from the 1977 original but places his story within another distinctive small-town setting: trading the original fishing town for a close-knit logging community. Our new Pete is a feral kid closer to Mowgli (indeed an early scene features a playful chase through wild reminiscent of Jon Favreau's recent live-action remake of The Jungle Book (2016)) although the film never adequately explains his articulate speech, dental hygiene and lack of malnutrition. Our new Elliot is a lovable shaggy green beast brought to life by the digital wizards at New Zealand's Weta. Voice actor John Kassir (formerly the Crypt Keeper from HBO's Tales from the Crypt!) also recreates some of the original Elliot's snorts and growls to charming effect.
Lowery and Halbrook's take on the story has one foot in the King Kong by way of Mighty Joe Young school of monster-trapped-by-civilization and another in the monster-as-metaphor psychological fantasy camp (represented by films like Pan's Labyrinth (2006), J.S. Bayona's contemporaneous A Monster Calls (2016) or even Disney's own Bridge to Terabithia (2007)) even though Elliot the dragon is very real. In keeping with Marmostein's original story the new film also deals with the importance of faith, though not necessarily religion. Repeated throughout is the idea that just because something we cannot see something, does not mean it is not there. Here dragons serve to challenge our collective ego-centric view of the world and drive home the need to retain our sense of wonder. The central message that faith shapes how we see the world and each other is chiefly articulated by Grace's father. Played with twinkly-eyed charm by Robert Redford, Mr. Meacham has for years told tall tales about his encounter with a dragon in the face of his daughter's skepticism. To its great credit the film never tries to draw a moral distinction between 'believers' and 'skeptics' as it is Grace's love of the tangible beauty of nature that forms her connection with Pete. In refusing to box characters into 'good' or 'evil' camps the story has a refreshing layer of humanity and complexity even if that robs it of a clearly defined antagonist.
If Lowery's take on Pete's Dragon is perhaps a shade too shapeless and genteel to entice audiences weaned on slam-bang action-adventures its sincerity, devotion to nature, family and a sense of wonder will resonate with those open to old-fashioned movie magic. Armed with an exceptional cast the film tugs at the heartstrings in all the right moments: Bryce Dallas Howard radiates maternal warmth, Robert Redford imbues his role with every ounce of old time movie star charisma he has and young actors Oakes Fegley and Oona Laurence (former star of Roald Dahl's Matilda on Broadway and forthcoming in Sofia Coppola's new version of The Beguiled) are remarkably personable and naturalistic. On the other hand Wes Bentley and Karl Urban, through no fault of their own, are miscast and probably should have swapped roles. Seemingly taking a cue from classic Steven Spielberg, Lowery stages some evocative, magical scenes between Pete and his dragon. Especially well-handled is an extended sequence where Pete runs through the town and, in the midst of his bewilderment over civilization, freaks out the locals. The result is that rare remake that, despite minor flaws, largely outdoes the original. A more nuanced, affecting and yes, magical, fable.