Pete’s Dragon is a nice movie. Now, don’t take that as the same sort of back-handed compliment one might give to a friend of the opposite sex with whom they have zero interest in getting intimately involved, as in, “Oh, I think you’re really nice, but…” No, Pete’s Dragon is nice in the sense that it is kind at heart, gentle in manner, and doesn’t seem to have a mean bone in its celluloid/digital body. Pete’s Dragon is the kind of nice you actually want to spend time with.
It just goes to show there really is no one formula for producing a successful remake. Disney’s recent live-action takes on Cinderella and Jungle Book succeeded by more or less sticking to their source material. Maleficent and the Alice in Wonderland movies, on the other hand, butchered the original stories and garnered very mixed receptions because of it. The message seemed clear; if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But now here comes Pete’s Dragon to blow that theory out of the water.
The original 1977 version of Pete’s Dragon isn’t really considered by most critics to be a Disney classic, not like Snow White or Bambi, but for those who were just the right age when it came out (a group which includes myself), its memory is held in high esteem. The story was fun, the songs were catchy, and the animated title character was completely endearing. Revisiting it recently did nothing to change that assessment. In short, it’s not broke and it doesn’t need fixing. Given that, it’s something of a wonder that writer/director David Lowery has kept little of the original movie beyond the central concept of a boy in need being cared for by a sometimes invisible dragon, and yet has produced something worthy in its own right.
The story begins with five-year-old Pete on a car trip with his mother and father. This being a Disney movie, it takes all of two minutes before both parents die (off-screen) when their automobile is accidentally driven off the road. Left alone in the forest, the young boy seems doomed, but almost immediately he is befriended by a dragon who literally takes the lad under his wing. From there, the film skips ahead six years to the early 1980s, where we find Pete and Elliott (named by Pete after a character in his favorite book) living blissfully together in a tree house.
The pair’s bucolic lifestyle comes to an end, however, when loggers from a nearby lumber town encroach on their territory. Curious about these newcomers, particularly park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her young daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence), Pete decides to get a closer look. Accidentally sustaining an injury after a playful encounter with Natalie, Pete is taken into town by Grace for treatment. Meanwhile, back in the woods, a concerned Elliot inadvertently reveals his existence to the loggers who decide to try and capture him.
This sounds like the perfect setup for lots of mayhem, but that isn’t what the movie has in mind. Other than a tense moment in which Elliot is subdued and a very brief car chase following his subsequent escape, there is nary an action sequence to be found. A large portion of the narrative is spent with Pete and Elliot getting acquainted with Natalie and Grace, as well as Grace’s logger boyfriend (Wes Bentley) and doting father (Robert Redford), all of whom turn out to be pretty decent people. Even the main logger who leads the effort to capture Elliot (Karl Urban) ends up getting a heroic moment before all is said and done. Pete’s Dragon pulls off that difficult yet most admirable task of having a movie with no villain in it. And to top it all off, it’s all carried out to the most genteel, folksy soundtrack this side of The Wilderness Family.
Kudos also have to be given to the film for not pushing any specific agenda, a true miracle in modern children’s movies. The setting is ripe for environmentalist lectures, but they never come. Grace obviously has certain leanings, but they flow naturally from her character and never once does she stop to deliver a screed to the audience. The closest the film comes to having an overt message is the surprisingly Christian-friendly one expounded by Redford’s character, the only person besides Pete to have actually seen Elliot before. As he relates his own encounter with the dragon to a group of spellbound though skeptical children, he gently reminds them that you don’t always have to see something to believe in it; sometimes faith is enough.
Nice, right? But that’s Pete’s Dragon in a nutshell. And after a summer full of super-hero slugfests and attention deficit destruction, a little bit nice is a good thing.