Pete’s Dragon (2016)
Going into this year, if you had told me that Disney’s best family offering over the summer was not going to be “Finding Dory” or “The BFG,” I would have thought you crazy. But their live-action adaptation of their 1977 film “Pete’s Dragon,” quite frankly, devastated me. More so than Pixar’s emotional sequel to one of its biggest hits, and (especially surprising for this Spielberg fan) more so than “The BFG,” David Lowery’s “Pete’s Dragon” tapped into a feeling almost no family film has really hit for me since “E.T.”. More than just a mere new version of a film, it is something profound and actually unexpected- a film that plays to brings fantasy elements into the real world convincingly, and treats its central premise as a rite of passage for its young protagonist. Watching the original Disney film, with its comedic leanings and musical numbers, will not prepare you for what Lowery (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) has done in this film. This isn’t just an exercise in brand extension by Disney- this is something more personal and powerful.
The film begins with a car ride with a family as they go camping in the woods. Pete (Levi Alexander) is reading a book, Elliot Got Lost, in the back, when a deer darts in front of their car, causing an accident. His parents die in the crash, but Pete lives, although before we get too worried about him, he is met by a mysterious creature, the titular green dragon, who will look after him and be his friend in the woods. Cut to six years later, and Pete (Oakes Fegley) is still living in the woods, happily with Elliot, what he has named the dragon, by his side. One of the key decisions Lowery makes is to treat Elliot as an animal in personality rather than the anthropomorphized Elliot the 1977 film had. Elliot in this film, which is a triumph in character animation in a year that already saw Jon Favreau’s “The Jungle Book” set a high bar for animal CGI, is basically a huge dog who can fly, and the bond he and Pete have is very much in that vein of a child who has a pet dog he loves, and unconditionally loves him. Their existence is upended, however, when a logging company starts to cut trees down deep in their part of the woods, and Pete allows himself to be seen by Natalie (Oona Laurence), the daughter of Jack (Wes Bentley), the head of the company, whose brother (Gavin, played by Karl Urban) is going against Jack’s wishes in his latest push into the forest. Jack’s girlfriend, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), is also out there (she’s a forest ranger), and helps bring Pete into town to be looked after, and to find out how he ended up out there.
In reality, the film Lowery and his co-writer, Toby Halbrooks, is not an adaptation of the 1977 film but actually an entirely new film, with only the lone boy Pete and his green dragon Elliot being held over from one film to the next. This is about a kid who has his life changed dramatically twice, once in a devastatingly sad way, once in a hopefully positive way through the compassion Natalie and Grace show him, and how both have unexpected emotional consequences for him. We never see him really deal with the loss of his parents, but it’s likely that Elliot’s befriending and protection of him helped heal that wound, while his reintegration into the human world through Grace and Natalie, though offering him a chance at the family he lost six years prior, means shaking up the bond he and Elliot had formed. This is probably the most emotionally complicated family film since Spike Jonze’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” and Lowery shows as much a gift for emotional and visual storytelling as Jonze displayed in that film. If you were expecting another easy remake from Disney with this one, strap in, and get ready for something more. I got not just an emotional jolt stronger than practically any other I’ve gotten from a movie all year- I got a film experience that took Disney and family filmmaking to a level I haven’t seen in many a years. I only wish I had gotten to it sooner, so I could have been a bigger cheerleader for the film when it came out.