Pete’s Dragon is a magical beast. Disney made a bold choice in hiring Ain’t Them Bodies Saints director David Lowery, and he has rewarded their faith in him with a family film that’s both unique and universal. While some may long for the lighthearted tone of the 1977 original, Lowery has crafted a picture that’s far more resonant and thoughtful. His film explores devastating loss, loneliness, and longing for a family. And while those are weighty subjects for a movie that’s ostensibly meant for children, Lowery handles the picture with a deft touch that allows us to be swept up in the magic of a young boy and his best friend who happens to be a big, furry dragon.
After losing his parents in a car crash, five-year-old Pete is lost in the wilderness when he meets Elliott, a giant, furry dragon who chooses to protect the young boy. They spend the next six years in the forests outside the small town of Millhaven, but one day Pete (Oakes Fegley) is discovered by Natalie (Oona Laurence), who was visiting the forest outside the timber operation run by her father, Jack (Wes Bentley). Jack’s girlfriend and park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) tries to forge a connection with Pete, who she manages to bring into town. But Elliott and Pete want to be reunited, which is made more complicated when Elliott reveals himself to Jack’s bellicose brother Gavin (Karl Urban), who decides to hunt the dragon.
While the movie technically has an antagonist in Gavin, Lowery wisely stays away from that road. It would have been easy to make the story about Elliott being hunted by an insensitive town, but that’s a minor facet of the larger tale Lowery is telling, which is really about a young boy and his dragon who are both looking for a family. That’s the through-line that gives Pete’s Dragon its heart and sets it above and beyond other family films. While most family films attempt to be serviceable distractions with a moral lesson tacked on to the end, Lowery invests in a deeper story about loss and healing. There’s still adventure and chases and action, but the meat of the film is in characters connecting with each other.
It’s not a coincidence that the main characters of Pete’s Dragon have all lost somebody. Pete lost his parents; Natalie and Jack have lost the matriarch of their family since Jack is now dating Grace; Grace and her father Meacham (Robert Redford) lost Grace’s mother when Grace was young. The movie even conveys that Elliott has been separated from his family somehow and needs Pete just as much as Pete needs him. That’s a melancholy story for a film that’s supposed to be a summer blockbuster intended for kids, but Lowery trusts his audience that they’ll be able to embrace the sadder moments along with the joyous ones.
Pete’s Dragon is the third in Disney’s new line of live-action remakes of their classic library, and it’s the most daring in its direction. Cinderella was a charmingly straightforward adaptation of a fairy tale; The Jungle Book was a marvel of visual effects wizardry that still managed to capture the adventure of the original; but Pete’s Dragon feels like a step forward when it comes to storytelling. It’s not slavishly devoted to the original nor does it rest on the strength of VFX (although Elliott looks incredible). Instead, Lowery has taken the indie aesthetic he brought to the lush, graceful Ain’t Them Bodies Saints and applied to a mainstream Hollywood film. Rather than try to dull his style to fit a wider audience, he’s made the system work for him.
Pete’s Dragon is a rare gem of a summer movie. Not content to be just another remake, the film is a stunning exploration of grief, loss, hope, and family. It’s cleverly couched in the framework of a family film, and while it may not be as action-packed or humorous as some have come to expect from the genre, it’s still a welcome sight and shows that there’s not just magic in the forest, but still some at the multiplex as well.