On the one hand, there’s a very cynical marketing ploy to the release of live action versions of Disney animated classics. Following Cinderella, Maleficent, The Jungle Book and Alice in Wonderland in the last few years alone, film fans might instinctively worry that the House of Mouse was running out of ideas. Yet PETE’S DRAGON stands as a distinct entity, bearing little resemblance to the 1977 musical of the same name while carrying a magic all of its own.
Following the car crash death of his parents, a young Pete is lost in the woods of the Pacific Northwest, surviving for six years thanks to a friendly dragon he names Elliot. The 11-year-old Pete’s (Oakes Fegley) idyllic new life is interrupted when loggers and park ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard) discover him living rough. Yet as her lumberjack boyfriend (Wes Bentley) and his brother Gavin (Karl Urban) penetrate deeper into the woods, Pete’s secret may be forced into the light.
Taking the late 1970s/early 1980s as its setting, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints director David Lowery shoots for a Steven Spielbergian sense of wonder and scores. Carefully constructing the same sense of wonder that Walt Disney’s own animated productions were known for, what begins as a spin on The Jungle Book segues into E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial by way of King Kong. Even though the existence of the dragon is evident from the start, Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks’ script maintains that same sense of jaw-dropping magical realism until the very end.
Selling this feeling is an impeccable cast, ostensibly led by Howard, who merely allow themselves to get swept up in the moments. Howard’s strong character forms a surrogate parent to Pete, but also stands in for the audience with her open skepticism. Urban narrowly avoids caricature by being misled rather than outright mischievous. Experienced child actors Fegley and Oona Laurence have a sincerity well beyond their years, mercifully devoid of cloying sentimentality. It would have been wonderful to see more of Robert Redford as Mr. Meacham, Grace’s father, the unabashed believer of the piece.
From the clothing choices down to the record players, the period detail is also instrumental to the fantasy. A combination of Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography and CGI transforms New Zealand convincingly into the Pacific Northwest, with breathtaking scenery and light-bathed trees a constant companion. Special effects have come a long way since 1977, and there are a few moments where you will forget that Elliot is not really there on set with the cast.
If we’re all being honest, the original Pete’s Dragon was feeling dated even at the time of its release. In a year when Steven Spielberg’s own fantasy film The BFG has been outdone by the likes of Netflix’s Stranger Things and PETE’S DRAGON, it’s comforting to know that this kind of film can still be made for kids of all ages. While there are a few scary bits throughout that will rattle the cages of the littlest ones, this is the kind of timeless fairy tale that Disney excels at.