Disney’s update of Pete’s Dragon, opening in theaters this weekend, arrives as something of a curiosity. The studio has spent the past several years mining its extensive catalog for beloved films to reimagine with the advent of modern filmmaking techniques, but unlike its predecessors, Pete’s Dragon isn’t regarded as a timeless classic on par with Cinderella or The Jungle Book. Indeed, the original film is a bizarre, almost psychedelic entry into the Disney lexicon, and in the 39 years since its release, it hasn’t exactly aged well – but then again, those factors could also make it ripe for a bold new retelling.
Trading in the source material’s New England fishing village in favor of the vast forests of the Pacific Northwest, director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) conjures a stirring tale about a five-year-old boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley), whose mother and father perish in a car accident almost immediately after being introduced. Alone in the wilderness, Pete finds himself pursued by a pack of hungry wolves, but is rescued by a surprisingly gentle creature who – as Robert Redford’s kindly old woodcutter tells us in the opening narration – has been the subject of local mythology for decades.
Pete christens his new pal Elliot, after the dog in his favorite book – which feels appropriate, considering that the furry green dragon has the temperament and personality of an inquisitive puppy. Brought to life by the incredibly talented artists at WETA digital, Elliot is a technical marvel capable of expressing a vast array of emotion, but audiences hoping for the same sort of chatty creatures found in this year’s Jungle Book are in for a surprise: nearly all of Elliot’s communication is nonverbal. Sure, he might utter the occasional soft whine or rumbling growl, but the dialogue in the film is spoken strictly by its human characters.
And speaking of the bipedal supporting cast of Pete’s Dragon, they’re all superb: Bryce Dallas Howard’s gentle, compassionate forest ranger is precisely the sort of maternal figure you would expect, if she had been raised by Robert Redford’s grizzled outdoorsman, who loves to entertain the local children with stories of his larger-than-life exploits. When Grace (Howard) stumbles upon Pete, her first instinct is to comfort and protect him, bringing him into the home she shares with her boyfriend Jack (Wes Bentley) and his daughter (Oona Laurence), both of whom take an immediate liking to the strange boy from the forest. But what does this mean for Elliot, whose search for Pete has put him squarely in the crosshairs of Jack’s overly ambitious brother Gavin (Karl Urban)?
One of the best choices Lowery makes with Pete’s Dragon is the decision to focus more on the relationships between its characters, rather than trying to rush the narrative forward. There are a number of lengthy, almost contemplative shots that would no doubt have been broken up into multiple cuts with another director at the helm, but Lowery has a very specific vision for this tale, and it shines through from beginning to end. The bond between Pete and Elliot never feels less than genuine, which is a remarkable feat considering the age of the young actor and the fact that he’s acting opposite a completely digital creation.
Pete’s Dragon is also one of the more wholesome family offerings in recent memory, permeated with a level of sentimentality that never feels cloying or schmaltzy. It’s an instant classic, undeniably sweet and filled to the brim with a constant sense of wonder and adventure that feels just as enduring as the studio’s best offerings. In a particularly poignant scene, Redford fondly speaks of being overcome with a magical feeling during his first encounter with Elliot, and I have to imagine it’s the same kind of feeling I had walking out of the theater.