This week Disney is releasing a remake of the 1977 film Pete’s Dragon. Co-written and directed by indie darling and Dallas, TX native David Lowery, the new Pete’s Dragon is a beautiful and emotional ride that people of all ages will enjoy. It stars Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley, Robert Redford, and Karl Urban, as well as Oakes Fegley as Pete. I urge everyone to go see this movie not only because it’s a wonderful film, but also because it speaks to a type of Disney movie that we just don’t get to see very often because, for the most part, Disney hasn’t really made one in 40 years.
When I was a kid I had a love of a different kind of Disney movie than what Disney was making at the time. Sure, I saw and loved a wave of Disney animation hits that all came out when I was exactly the right age to see them, from The Little Mermaid (1989, I was 6) to The Lion King (1994, I was 11). That period of time is often referred to as a sort of mini Golden Age of Disney Animation that would ultimately lead to other animated films that were incredibly popular, but unloved by me, if only because I wasn’t as interested in them as we got into the second half of the 90s and into the early aughts. Stuff like Mulan (1998), Tarzan (1999), The Emperor’s New Groove (2000), and Lilo & Stitch (2002). I have since seen all of these and they’re fine (some even quite good), but they don’t strike my fancy the way something like Beauty and the Beast (1991) did and still does. There’s a nostalgia factor there, for sure, but I also think there’s something about Disney cartoons that just appeals more to kids than adults. Or at least appeal more to the kid in me than the adult in me. But it didn’t used to be this way. Disney used to make a different kind of picture along with their animated fare. They used to make live action films for general audiences that had broad appeal. They were adventure and family stories that anyone could watch and enjoy.
My parents and grandparents had extensive VHS libraries that I had access to at an early age. I have many fond memories of taking VHS tapes out of their cases or sleeves, popping them in to the VCR, rewinding them because some thoughtless fool had forgotten to do so (probably my brother), and then being taken away on a great adventure or moved to tears by a story about a family. A lot of the films I saw at this time starred people like Fred MacMurray, Angela Lansbury, Don Knotts, Haley Mills, Kevin Corcoran, and Tommy Kirk. Some of my favorites were Bedknobs and Broomsticks, The Swiss Family Robinson, Pollyanna, No Deposit, No Return, Old Yeller, and The Cat From Outer Space (yes, that’s a real movie and it’s awesome).
These films are funny, they’re grand without being huge (there are no cities being destroyed in these movies), and they’re full of real emotion. Even something as arguably saccharine as Pollyanna is, at its heart, about a girl who’s had a tough life and has found a way to be optimistic anyway. When was the last time you saw a movie that celebrated optimism? Think about Old Yeller. Spoilers for a really old movie—the climax of that film is Tommy Kirk shooting his Yeller because the dog’s got rabies. Ultimately, it’s about making tough decisions even when we don’t want to AND it’s got the added bonus of being unflinching about it. With the exception of Inside Out, what was the last “kids’” film that really made you deal with sadness like that? Lilo & Stitch arguably tries, but like so many of these films once they approach real sadness or anger or insert-difficult-feeling-here they run roughshod over it by upping the stakes to the point that it’s a world-ending calamity that only a super human can solve. These earlier films from the 50s through the 70s couldn’t and didn’t do that. And because these films are about real people with real problems (cats from outer space not withstanding) they’re relatable to folks of all ages.
At its heart, the new Pete’s Dragon is exactly one of these films. It’s about a little boy who gets separated from his parents and ends up living in the woods by himself for years. Except he’s not really by himself, he’s got a friend: a dragon named Elliot. Eventually he’s discovered by people from a nearby town (this is where Bryce Dallas Howard, et al come in) and the town discovers the dragon. What follows does have a bit of an actiony, thrilling element to it, but it’s blessedly small scale and, AND!, the big action set piece is an extension of the emotional stakes that have been at play the whole time. This is how action set pieces are supposed to work, but so often they feel arbitrary.
The performances in this film are essential to all of this working. I think my favorite performance in the film is from Robert Redford who is so real and so natural. Bryce Dallas Howard is fantastic as a park ranger who really identifies with Pete and his love for the woods. Karl Urban is probably my least favorite in this film. His character is the most broadly written and his motivations aren’t entirely clear. Not necessarily Urban’s fault, but it’s a problem. The absolutely star of course is Pete, played wonderfully by Oakes Fegley.
Bryce Dallas Howard and Oakes Fegley
Not only does Fegley very naturally and convincingly play a child who has been lost in the woods for years, but he also sells the relationship with Elliot incredibly well. Perhaps because he’s a kid he’s more adept at playing opposite an imaginary dragon than an adult would be, but his love for Elliot feels real. And speaking of things that feel real, Elliot, the dragon, is a masterwork of CG and what I’m guessing are very strategic uses of some kind of puppetry. If 100% of Elliot is CG then I don’t know what world we live in anymore because his green fur is tactile and real. His eyes feels real. Similar to the amazing effects job done in the remake of The Jungle Book this year, Elliot is utterly convincing, even when he’s making himself invisible. It all works.
There are two things that Pete’s Dragon has going for it that the films I referenced earlier from the 50s, 60s, and 70s don’t have and that’s amazingly gorgeous cinematography and a killer soundtrack. Director David Lowery has also worked as a cinematographer and that experience shows in this film. The look of this film is stunning. It’s lush and sumptuous and fully takes advantage of its Pacific Northwest location. The story in Pete’s Dragon moved me to tears a few times, but so did the images. There are moments of Pete and Elliot soaring through the sky, above the clouds, that will make you hold your breath they’re so beautiful. The score, by Daniel Hart, who Lowery worked with on his previous feature, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, is beautiful and moving. There are also a handful of songs by St. Vincent, The Lumineers, and Leonard Cohen that are featured prominently in the film that work really well. The film doesn’t draw a lot of attention to this, but Pete’s Dragon is a period piece, I’m guessing its set in the late 70s or 80s, and these singer-songwriter-y songs fit in very well with the tone of the film.
Ultimately, Pete’s Dragon’s greatest strength is its heart and its emotion. It’s a story of a boy who has to learn to let go of childish things and move on with his life, even though he desperately loves the dragon who has been his only friend in the world. Love, friendship, family, mystery, adventure, heartbreak. These are universal themes that anyone can identify with and I think people will. I really hope this film finds an audience and makes a boatload of cash, if only so Disney will start making more movies like this again. Pete’s Dragon opens on August 12th in both 2D and 3D (either is fine, but go with the 2D). Take your kids, take your grandparents. It’s for everyone.