“Just because you don’t see anything doesn’t mean it’s not there”
You have to give Disney credit for accomplishing the unthinkable this year by releasing remakes of archaic properties to rapturous fanfare. The Jungle Book began this refurbishment movement with the studio’s Iron Man steward Jon Favreau taking the helm of what proved a fantastically realized world made almost entirely of pixels bolstered by a story with the type of stakes the original forgot in lieu of sing-a-long frivolity. And now the trend continues with Pete’s Dragon and director David Lowery, plucked from Sundance acclaim directly into the fire of summer blockbuster season. He and cowriter Toby Halbrooks show an obvious affinity for the themes Malcolm Marmorstein‘s 1977 script possessed rather than its comedy and fearlessly usher their vision into the 21st century with full hearts and infinite imagination.
Gone is the crass Gogan family—a menagerie of buffoons with malicious intent and a bill of sale on a human boy, some of the most disturbing subject matter for a G-rated song and dance number ever. Gone is the over-arching, mustache-twirling villainy of Dr. Terminus—a con artist who’d willfully sabotage a young child’s innocence if it meant lining his pockets with ill-gotten gains. To have simply fashioned updated versions of these despicable creatures would be admitting you know nothing about today’s world or the intelligence of children craving authentic drama to strike a cord beyond cheap laughs. Lowery and company are keenly aware of how four decades have changed our collective consciousness, paring things down to their emotional core before building them back up from there.
It starts with tragedy: a Jungle Book-esque loss of life and love leaving Pete (Oakes Fegley) alone in the forest of Millhaven as an unwitting orphan of five. Lost but unafraid, he serendipitously meets a gargantuan green beast with kind eyes and a protective spirit. Naming him Eliot after a children’s book his parents gave him, the two live as best friends for six years without once seeing another human being. Only when local lumber mill foreman Gavin (Karl Urban) ignores brother and partner Jack (Wes Bentley) by pushing further into the trees than he should does Pete’s world change. Looking to slow them down with some harmless vandalism, Jack’s fiancé and Millhaven ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) fatefully crosses under the boy’s watchful eye in the process.
The Mary Poppins-like magical steward of life lessons is replaced by a musical legend of dragons high in the northern mountains and a myth that one wandered off without the means to return home. Old Meacham (Robert Redford) fuels this train of thought, his retired lumberjack relegated to hobbies continuously recounting a personal encounter with the monster years ago. He’s made the fable’s wistful fantasy into a cautionary tale replete with as much danger to remain vigilant as wonder to strive towards unknown discoveries no matter how impractical the target of attention. His daughter Grace and Jack grew out of the mystery, but not their love of nature. Gavin cultivated a prideful gaze, the logging company a means towards success at the detriment of the forest supplying it.
The bulk of the story takes place over two days: one where Gavin over-plays his hand to lead everyone into the area Pete and Elliot made their home and another’s adventure to see whether magic truly is in the air. Lowery’s version hinges solely on faith and hope because there’s no one to “save” the boy from except a desolate existence born from disaster. It becomes a test of everyone’s mettle and love, a story of fathers and daughters, brothers, and friends. Will humanity and trust win over greed and logic? Will coincidences like Pete drawing Elliot identically to Meacham’s dragon and the boy’s far-fetched imaginary friend matching the monster Gavin seeks to hunt after encountering it in the trees allow the town to accept the impossible truth?
It’s about a little boy finding someone to love and love him back. It’s about adults who’ve let go of wonder rediscovering a sense of the amazing and knowing what to do with it upon its arrival. Elliot needs Pete as much as he needs him, the two identical in their orphanage and longing to never be alone again. The addition of a girl Pete’s age to join with Grace’s open arms is brilliant, Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) providing the boy an alternative to his dragon beyond parental guardianship. It’s Natalie who believes him when even Grace finds doing so too far-fetched despite taking a leap of faith herself. Pair the children with Meachum and Elliot is allowed a fighting chance if/when Gavin’s pursuit is successful.
Lowery injects the austere rustic style from Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, Millhaven’s majestic nature and blue-collar mentality shining to render its small town USA feel authentic. Sheriff Dentler (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) knows whom to call when Grace misses her appointment with Child Services. The loggers know what “Meacham was right” means upon spying the dragon for themselves. And we understand Grace’s point when she says she’s spent her life in those woods seeing nothing, her curiosity and desire to do right by Pete overcoming her entrenched pragmatism. The drama’s real; the choices made big enough to affect more than one little boy. And as fun as it is to watch Gavin fail at hunting Elliot the first time, his return with tranquilizer darts is just as heartbreaking.
Removing the original’s musical trappings helps deliver these powerfully resonate emotions. Redford lends Meacham sage wisdom Mickey Rooney‘s drunkard Lampie never sought. Howard’s Grace, Bentley’s Jack, and Laurence’s Natalie each combine to equal the love Helen Reddy‘s Nora had in her heart, their familial unit allowing Pete in harboring more nuance than the void left by her fiancé’s disappearance. And Urban’s Gavin instills the perfect dose of ego and aggression without losing his humanity. He cares what happens to the boy and in the end seeks to trap Elliot rather than kill him. He may need a reminder as to what’s truly important in his life to get beyond his yearning for fame, but we know from the start that the capacity to do so is there.
As for the titular Pete, Fegley brings him to life with a believably feral mistrust of the others. The way Lowery and Halbrooks handle his assimilation with allusions to his real parents and mirroring of certain lines they spoke with those of Grace proves effectively pure and never contrived. In the end we truly don’t know whether he’ll stay or leave—legitimate reasons exist for both outcomes. And while Elliot doesn’t possess his hand-drawn ancestor’s silliness or “speech”, he does retain an unwavering sense of good and right. His anger often trumps his power of invisibility, his fiery breath a defense mechanism the human’s earn. But without humanity’s fear Elliot has a dog’s curiosity and teddy bear’s cuddliness to make every young audience member wish he were theirs.
Rating: PG | Runtime: 102 minutes | Release Date: August 12th, 2016 (USA)
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Director(s): David Lowery
Writer(s): David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks / Malcolm Marmorstein (1977 screenplay)