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I have a confession: the 1977 musical, live-action/animated hybrid Pete’s Dragon eluded me. Without a frame of reference, my expectations landed in the middle of the road after viewing the first trailer of the 2016 remake. Like a select few, I found it odd that a dragon possessed a fur coat instead of the typical reptilian scales, but I have no commitment to the portrayal of a wholly fictional species for this to offend me. Whether this Disney outing presented a serviceable film concerned me primarily, and fortunately, the reliably unstoppable conglomerate delivered, albeit quieter than we’re accustomed to.
Pete’s Dragon begins with our protagonist, unsurprisingly named Pete (played by Oakes Fegley), bonding with his parents on a road trip over a story about a lost dog named Elliott, until a deer decides to be deer-like and walk in front of their vehicle without regard. Unfortunately, Pete’s father’s reflexes weren’t fast enough to prevent the car from flipping, resulting in Pete’s parents’ instant death. Pete scrambles out of the car, children’s book in hand, and runs into the forest after a nearby pack of wolves frightens him. The titular Dragon steps in to scare off the wolves, and immediately connects with Pete as a dog would connect to its owner. Pete appropriately names his newfound friend “Elliott.”
The film jumps ahead 6 years, at which point Pete and Elliott have co-existed and developed a strong bond. Pete soon stumbles across a forest ranger named Grace (played by the endlessly talented Bryce Dallas Howard), who has a family of her own: her fiance Jack (played by Wes Bentley) and his daughter Natalie (played by Oona Laurence). As you might predict, Pete has to relearn basic communication skills with human beings. He still has feral tendencies from his elongated relationship with Elliott in the wilderness, and you need to feel every second of that struggle as it plays out on screen. Fortunately, the casting director found a gem in semi-newcomer Oakes Fegley who conveyed Pete’s multitude of emotions in an effective way.
Another absolute standout is easily Bryce Dallas Howard. I may have seen her in what I’d define as bad movies, but she’s always given upper echelon performances. Pete’s Dragon is no exception. In a scene where Pete introduces Elliott to Grace and her family, there is a genuine look of terror on Bryce’s face that is unforgettable. She portrays Grace in a real, relatable way, and you invest and believe in how much she cares about Pete, despite Pete practically being a stranger. However, I’m afraid that’s the extent of the acting department’s memorability. Robert Redford plays Grace’s grandfather in a rather hollow fashion, and Karl Urban is Gavin, a rather bland antagonistic hunter who has ulterior motives with Elliott.
Director David Lowery does discover a way to transform a forgettable kids movie into a well-shot enjoyable adventure. The opening car crash, although too terrifying for younger children, is creatively conceived and executed. Every scene that includes the dragon is not without purpose. Uttering only growls and whale-like sounds, Elliott is a completely developed character with a fulfilling arc. In lesser directorial hands, this character and thus the entire film would likely crumble.
Although as the story runs its course, you have difficulty locating the stakes. The stakes certainly exist, but they’re rather low. Both our protagonists and antagonists’ motives are unclear as the third act unravels. Granted, a Disney kids movie tends to earn a pass for being shallow. The reward for the audience lies in the moral of the story, which is very present. In fact, despite my confusion in the conclusion, the very last moments are immensely gratifying for all characters.
Although the humor is almost non-existent, the acting is mostly unremarkable, and the story is mediocre, Pete’s Dragon still provides enough endearment and emotional weight to balance the shortcomings. Elliott the Dragon is personified satisfactorily and his relationship to Pete is relatable, both of which is where the audience investment will often lie. A shockingly calmer Disney affair,Pete’s Dragon nevertheless stirs the emotions as Disney flicks are wont to do.
Did you catch Pete’s Dragon? Not physically; did you see the movie? Let’s talk about it in the comments!