David Lowery might have been born in the wrong decade. The writer/director made waves in 2013 with his breakthrough film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, a Badlands-esque drama set in the sun-drenched backdrop of 1970s Louisiana with open range, low lighting in the nighttime and southern accents all around. Though his latest feature is under the almighty Disney corporation, he still got to make something akin to E.T. as if it were made at the time of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Seriously, did no one tell Lowery that he’s making movies in 2016 and not 1977? Actually, maybe nobody should tell him to get out of the 70s if he can make movies this sincere.
The title character of Pete’s Dragon protects 10-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegley) while having adventures in the near-endless woods of Millhaven. One day, a park ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) spots young Pete alone and tries to bring him into town to find out who he is. It turns out he’s been in the woods for nearly six years, but he says he’s never been alone and keeps describing his buddy Elliot, who happens to be a giant green furry dragon. Pete’s story attracts the attention of the ranger’s father (Robert Redford), a woodcarver who claims to have seen a dragon himself, along with Grace’s fiancé (Wes Bentley) and his young daughter (Oona Laurence). But Grace’s soon-to-be brother-in-law (Karl Urban) has a bad encounter with Elliot and tries to organize a hunt on Elliot while Pete figures out what life outside the woods is like and whether or not he wants to stay.
Like all of the recent run of live-action Disney remakes, Pete’s Dragon can easily be described as “cute.” From the wholesome design of the old-timey town of Millhaven to the soundtrack of acoustic folky songs, Pete’s Dragon asserts itself as an old-school family film from frame one. Like Lowery’s Bodies Saints, the film seems to take place in the 70s (fitting considering the original was made in 1977) with calm characters speaking softly and never being any kind of threatening or nasty. It’s as if Lowery has taken the image of a wholesome blue-collar northwestern town and trapped it in a snow globe, except the snow in the globe is actually wood shavings (because of the lumber mill, hence Millhaven). Lowery also shoots the film with great outdoor scenery of the sunlight shining through the imposing trees and the serene moonlight while making sure Elliot the dragon doesn’t feel too fake. He makes sure to blend the dragon into the scenery as much as possible, even using the dragon’s camouflage to help Elliot seamlessly merge with the setting. Even the scenes of Elliot in broad daylight look legitimate, especially when he and Pete romp along the mountains of Middle Earth (the movie was filmed entirely in New Zealand so don’t be shocked if you think you’ve seen some hobbits run around Pete and Elliot’s territory before.
The worst thing you can say about Pete’s Dragon is its blatant simplicity. Even if you’ve never seen the original movie, you’ve seen Pete’s Dragon before. Feral wild boy alone meets modern society and has trouble adjusting meets boy and his odd creature friend. It’s Tarzan meets E.T. with a main message on the importance of finding family. That said, Pete’s Dragon is hands down the feel-good movie of the year and the sincerest thing Disney has produced since The Muppets or even Toy Story 3. Nothing feels forced or phony, the emotions you get from the movie feel honest and brought out through genuine enjoyment. The dragon itself is cute as a button, something like if Doug from Up grew up to look like a green plush toy. Fegley gives a fine performance as Pete, with boundless energy and real heart. Dallas Howard is the maternal force in the picture, but is also relaxed and rolls along with whatever Pete believes to be his real life, even if it includes a giant dragon. Laurence, very impressive in last year’s Southpaw, is a lot more upbeat and realistic, perhaps as the vessel for the young ones in the audience. Redford is in the movie for maybe three or four scenes and yet, at 79, he’s the best actor in the movie and still one of the best actors on the planet. Despite his massive success in Hollywood, Redford still comes off with natural home-grown American charm. Urban starts off as the “bad guy,” freaked out by the dragon’s presence and wanting to trap it not out of hate but just curiosity. He’s not so much the villain, but actually has some good moments of comic goofiness. With this and Star Trek Beyond, it’s clear Urban is one of Hollywood’s premiere supporting players.
It’s understandable to go into Pete’s Dragon not betting anything on it. The original film isn’t one of the memorable classic Disney movies and this is another example of the remake overload of modern Hollywood. But going in blind and not having any hopes for it is probably the best way of going into it, as you can walk out pleasantly surprised at the simple charms the movie has to offer. Pete’s Dragon is so preserved in its own universe and separate from the commercialism of modern kid’s movies that it’s actually quite refreshing. Maybe that’s the formula for the modern Disney remake: trap the fantasy and don’t let it go near reality.