Pete’s Dragon is further proof—along with Jungle Book and Cinderella—that Disney has firmly taken hold the reins of the “modern adaptation movement”. Disney’s updated versions of their older films manage to not only capture the sense of sheer wonder of their classics, but, actually improve on the originals, with Dragon being miles away better than the original– which has to be Disney’s strangest, most annoying, hallucinogen-induced nightmare ever. Yes, the newer version is an immense improvement. I’m sure such a thing would get me ten lashings from the Disney die-hards, but it’s true. This updated version is effortlessly magical in its simplicity: something we can attribute to director David Lowery’s assured direction.
The difference Lowry’s talent makes is apparent even in the opening scene, which shows a young boy named Pete getting into a car crash after his parents swerve off the road. It had the potential to be campy or even far too grim, but Lowry gets the most out of his shots without showing too much. The slo-mo of the young boy turning in the air while his cherished book floats around him, followed by the child pulling himself from the wreckage, packing his things, and looking back
at his dead parents with a single tear rolling down his face may come off as cloying to some, but is the perfect blend of subtle and effective, making for a suitably tragic scene in a family movie.
Then the boy rushes off into the woods, where is his rescued by a loveable green dragon, with incredibly dexterous hands to boot. We fast-forward six years later and the boy, now 11 (Oakes Fegley), lives the carefree life of a messy-haired wildling, who eats forest food, climbs trees, poos in the woods and, best of all, plays with his dragon buddy whom he’s named Elliot. Said dragon, being the only real special effect in the movie, acts more like a dog than a dragon. He sniffs everything, pounces in the water, has a goofy demeanor, has a complex range of expressions, and has a mysteriously-always-wet nose. Yet, the fact he’s a dragon is not lost. He, with Pete in tow, rockets through the air doing 360 degree turns and soars above the clouds with nothing but the sunset in the way. Gone is the crack addict-looking beast of the original. This green giant is as majestic as he is fluffy, and any kid would be lucky to have him as their wilderness companion.
As seen in his earlier effort, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Lowry has an affinity for the small town, Midwestern feel for things. The beat up trucks, the string-heavy music that would have a place in movies like O’ Brother Were Art Thou, all the way down to the mostly-boring people are all represented. Most of that stuff is beneficial, emphasizing the simple, soulfulness of the flick—with the music winning the most points. But then again, we do have put up with dragon-less, plain small town folk. There is the ‘good-natured-but-little-else’ ranger who finds Pete, named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard); there’s the guy who doesn’t know what’s going on at any time named Jack (Wes Bentley); then despicable hick named Gavin (Karl Urban) who wants nothing more than fame and money to buy a new truck; and, lastly, the wise old man who believes in embracing the magic of the world named “Meacham” (Robert Redford).
Of course, this being Pete and Elliot’s show, none of them have anything better to do than seem to know what’s best for a child who was perfectly fine pooing in the woods with his pet dragon. Redford is the only one who really complements the movie’s sense of magic. His eyes flicker with a sparkle of wonder when he tells Grace about his own encounter with the dragon, proving that the point of a supporting actor is to help lift up the rest of the film. He does a lot of lifting here, and it shows.
As the movie progresses, you can start to accurately recite the typical man-and-beast beats in your head
: everything goes fine, then someone ruins it; then the beast is taken by the despicable person, and is then freed; and inevitably, the man and beast have a soulful goodbye. No, the plot is nothing to write home about. It’s straight-forward and simple to a fault, but even that fault can be seen as somewhat of a plus. In an age of the effects-driven narrative, Dragon works to amaze using only the relationship between a boy and his friend, who just happens to be a fire-breathing dragon. When they’re apart, you want nothing more for them to be reunited, and when they’re back together, everything seems right in the world. This little bit of hope courses through the movie’s veins and, hopefully, teaches the viewers to care about something other than spectacle for a goddamn hour and 45 minutes.
This is a style that is slowly dying in the movie world, but will always remain in the hearts of directors like Lowry, who can make a movie about a boy and his dragon this subtle and simple. It may be too simple and too sweet at times—mostly when the dragon hasn’t been on screen for a while—and most of the characters are a shot of Lunesta to the brain, but when Dragon works, it has the soul of Cinderella and the effects-driven wonder of Jungle Book flowing in it. The effects are dazzling and the heart is pumping, and hopefully that’s all enough to enliven the hearts of parents catching it with their kid, even if the kid may want to go and poo in the woods after seeing it.