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Pete’s Dragon Review: Disney Finds a Poetic Fable Worth Telling

By  · Published on August 10th, 2016

Here be a new classic.

Remakes hardly ever come simpler than their sources. Artists and studios assume familiar audiences want more explanation and more detail behind the recognizable surface. Why else, they reason, would people want to see the same story? Pete’s Dragon is the rare exception, which is why it finds such success. Writer/Director David Lowery’s vision is a simplification, scaled back in narrative scope so that it toes the line between unoriginality and the timeless clarity of a fable.

Folklore and storybooks are the languages Pete’s Dragon speaks and it sees the world like a poem, each frame a tale of togetherness or apartness.

Its wild boy Pete (Oakes Fegley, best when highlighting his spider monkey physicality) channels Tarzan and The Iron Giant’s Hogarth as the film pits youthful openness and imagination against fear. His wildness isn’t innate, but a learned response to tragedy after an understated opening sequence that will spring leaks in the driest eyes. Pete’s wildness, like Tarzan’s, is a bravery in the face of nature. Bravery to embrace the wildness of humanity rather than fight against it or give up.

The ebbs and flows of companionship and isolation begin right away, as Pete suffers losses but finds a dragon. The dragon, Elliott, is a tangible fuzzy green beast who shivers iridescent goosebumps when Pete grabs his fur. His interactions with the world are subtle and familiar despite being, well, a dragon. His canine face and impish wagging movements make it clear when Elliott wants to play or when he’s scared, even when he’s using his powers of invisibility. He’s named for a dog in the wholesome Little Golden Book knock-off Elliot Gets Lost that Pete clings to, his only reminder of his life before the forest.

When more humans enter the picture, after a near-silent opening that lets us learn Pete and Elliott’s relationship and personalities through movement, the themes deepen. Togetherness suddenly means more, a soft extension of Elliot Gets Lost’s familial moral that spreads like ivy overtaking a home. Nature can be a kind of family, but can it replace humanity? Pete’s treehouse, built of elegantly twisted branches and vines, is shot far cozier than the dangerously accelerated panic when entering small town civilization.

The civilization that finds him approaches him at his level. Natalie (Oona Laurence), a girl his age, wanders into the forest, curious and competitive. Her father, a lumber mill owner, profits from the forest, but knows restraint. He’s engaged to Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a park ranger whose career and personality bridge the movement of childhood wonder into the adult world.

They’re characters written simply but elegantly, each with factors drawing them as friends to both young and old. Even the bad guy (Karl Urban in buffoonish Gaston mode) cares about family, but is painted as scared of the unknown and selfish – two of adulthood’s most prominent sins. The lumber mill is an economic extension of these qualities, making the film silently environmental in a way that speaks across ages and comprehension levels. The trees have run away, Pete says, frightened by the invaders.

Conveying complexity with the vocabulary of a children’s book, Pete’s Dragon never feeling like it’s patronizing. It’s seemingly set in the ’70s (at least judging by the rotary phones, musical cues, and jean jackets) which only makes its plot easier to swallow – no internet for a dragon to go viral on. But its setting, the rural forest edge, makes it easy to seem timeless.

Pete’s conflict with society and its technology – like cars, balloons, and record players – never make him a punchline, but serve as opportunities for connections. Natalie can show him her songs.

The needledrops, including a perfect Leonard Cohen song, bolster the complexities and light sweetness of the film. Laurence – the true standout of the film – manages to hold our rapt attention by singing an acapella folk song in addition to going tit for tat with Robert Redford with her expressive eyes and thin-lipped, precocious delivery. Howard is a cozy blanket, her eyes and smile highlighted by her supplementarily-colored hair and uniform. Redford, playing Howard’s father, has the slightly-cockamamie old man warmth common in children’s movies, but nobody wins you over like Redford.

There’s no surprise the climax of the film is a series of hugs. The only surprise is that each works as well as the last.

When a film’s villains are the gaps between people when they don’t bother to trust one another, it seems so easy, so natural, to make a movie this endearing. Lowery’s knack for the quiet fringes is wrung for every teardrop it’s worth and he makes Pete’s Dragon his own as much as he reaffirms its place as a Disney film. It’s heartfelt and beautiful in its simplicity, ending with a series of perfect moments that will cement it as a true Disney classic.

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Jacob Oller writes everywhere (Vanity Fair, The Guardian, Playboy, FSR, Paste, etc.) about everything that matters (film, TV, video games, memes, life).