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Warmly Emotional 'Pete's Dragon' Soars In A Summer Of Darkness And Despair

Oakes Fegley is Pete in Disney's remake of <em>Pete's Dragon</em>.
Matt Klitscher
Disney Enterprises, Inc.
Oakes Fegley is Pete in Disney's remake of Pete's Dragon.

The economics of remakes tend to run counter to creative value: Studios eager to cash in on existing properties choose to revive their most beloved titles, which generally condemns remakes to be a pale shadow of established classics. It also handcuffs filmmakers significantly, because they can't paint too far outside the lines or risk alienating fans of the original. The ideal remake would take a flawed film with a strong premise and build something completely new and inspired around it.

Pete's Dragon is that ideal remake. Beyond a couple of memorable songs ("Pete's Song," "Candle on the Water") and the affable rapport between a lonely moppet and an animated dragon, there's not much to cherish about the 1977 Pete's Dragon, a musical-comedy that leans on the slapstick and sentiment that dogged many Disney live-action movies of that era. So David Lowery's affecting tearjerker strips away the excess and keeps on stripping, until all that's left is the elemental friendship between boy and beast and a lovely affirmation of family, community, and the preciousness of the natural world.

The throwback qualities of Lowery's version recall the director's previous film, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, a period crime romance that married the visual splendor and poetic tone of early Terrence Malick with the Robert Altman Depression-era classic Thieves Like Us. Pete's Dragon draws inspiration from the storybook simplicity of Carroll Ballard's The Black Stallion and Fly Away Home, and its setting, a logging town in the Pacific Northwest, conspicuously lacks the electronic clutter of the modern world, even as the dragon itself is an expressive marvel of CGI wizardry. Lowery wants nothing more or less than to bring viewers back in touch with the most basic virtues of being alive.

And yet the circle of life includes death and Pete's Dragon begins on that tragic note, with the parents of a little boy dying in a car accident while on a family vacation. Young Pete (Oakes Fegley) survives the crash and heads into the trees, where he's met by the fabled Millhaven dragon, whose fluffy green fur and lumbering gait makes him resemble an oversize sheepdog with wings. After six years of living happily in the deep forest, Pete and the dragon, who he names Elliot, encounter the threat and the promise of civilization. A friendly forest ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is the first to spot Pete and bring the wild child back to her home, where her fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley) and soon-to-be stepdaughter (Oona Laurence) give him a glimpse of a normal human life.

The conflict in Pete's Dragon, like the conflict in many films about the environment, is the encroachment of industry, which here takes the form of Jack's brother (Karl Urban), whose logging company is cutting too deep a swath in the woods. And when Elliot appears to rescue the boy, it opens up the possibility of exploiting the creature for profit. Yet Pete's Dragon isn't the type of film to make villains out of anyone, because it's optimistic enough to believe that our better instincts will win out in the end. Arriving at the end of a summer filled with chaos and darkness, on screen and off, it makes an emotionally rousing plea to our shared humanity.

Pete's Dragon gets greedy with the sentimentality in the final third—not content with dampening a few tissues, it goes for the whole box—but its pervasive gentleness and good humor, along with its reverence for natural beauty, carries the day. Elliot's bond with Pete is half-parental, half-canine, with warmth and nurturing attention giving way to games of hide-and-seek and ingratiating dog licks. And as Grace, Howard presents herself to Pete as a tender surrogate mother and a kindred spirit, someone who both knows what it's like to lose a parent and appreciates open-air adventures. For an orphaned boy like Pete, this is a win-win situation, and Pete's Dragon offers a similar proposition, combining the warmth of home with the ecstatic beauty and freedom of the wild. There's no sense denying any of it.

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Scott Tobias is the film editor of The A.V. Club, the arts and entertainment section of The Onion, where he's worked as a staff writer for over a decade. His reviews have also appeared in Time Out New York, City Pages, The Village Voice, The Nashville Scene, and The Hollywood Reporter. Along with other members of the A.V. Club staff, he co-authored the 2002 interview anthology The Tenacity Of the Cockroach and the new book Inventory, a collection of pop-culture lists.