Movie review: Pete’s Dragon
Pulling inspiration from childhood touchstones such as Puff the Magic Dragon, The Jungle Book and Lassie, David Lowery’s remake of Pete’s Dragon may play to a familiar formula, but it’s still warm and fuzzy and fun to cuddle
Starring: Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oona Laurence, Karl Urban, Wes Bentley
Directed by: David Lowery
Running time: 1hr 42 mins
By Katherine Monk
Just yesterday I watched a kid pick up a stick and attempt to cast a spell. His eyes were so focused that I had to watch as he whirled his twig with a twisted scowl. So much hope and conviction in his flourish, and yet, as all rational adults already know, it amounted to nothing.
Our desire to believe in the magical burns bright in childhood, but it’s a fire that experience in a frequently cruel world eventually snuffs out.
Pete’s Dragon has enough charm to rekindle that flame. A sweet piece of Disney formula that revisits a 1977 property about an orphan boy and a dragon named Elliott, this new iteration of the story updates certain details and locales – moving the backdrop from a fishing village to timber country, and removing the musical element – but for the most part, it deals with the same theme: believing in the magic that surrounds us.
Director-co-writer David Lowery takes the challenge seriously and cozies up to all that modern technology allows as far as fakery. The original dragon was a pen and ink cartoon. This dragon is a fully digitized creature with a billion bristling green hairs that can mimic their surroundings, giving Elliott amazing camouflage abilities.
As a character and a screen presence, Elliott the dragon isn’t just believable, he’s the kind of friend everyone wants. Loyal, honest and loving, Elliott befriends Pete (Oakes Fegley) shortly after his parents die in a car crash.
The dragon frightens the local predators and teaches Pete the ways of the woods, ensuring he is both Mowgli and Tarzan, with a hint of Macaulay Culkin from Home Alone.
Lowery makes the most of the autonomous kid in the wild fantasy. He finds both humour and conflict in the dynamic between Pete’s purist reality and the contamination of the civilized world, which is hard at work cutting down the ancient forest Pete and Elliott call home.
Though dragons are ancient creatures and typically drawn with lizard-like scales, Elliott
seems to draw most of his inspiration from Lassie, Rin Tin Tin and Beethoven (the St. Bernard, not the composer). He’s a stuffie-like sidekick, all warm and fuzzy, until the grown-up world intrudes, and forces him into protective mode.
The bond, the visuals and the emotional mood in the scenes between Pete and Elliott really do have a sense of magic because Fegley sells every outsider glance and wriggles clear of the kid-actor coyness trap.
Thanks to the animators, Elliott is able to meet every glance with a warm, human eye and a Chewbacca-like wail – checking off every box in the ‘how to elicit empathy’ handbook.
It’s the grown-ups from the city who cover it all with a thick layer of melted cheese.
Perhaps, given the original starred Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney, Shelley Winters and Red Buttons, we shouldn’t be surprised to find a hint of kitsch. Yet, there’s something about watching Bryce Dallas Howard try to be nice that doesn’t work, just as there’s something strange about watching Robert Redford adopt a Mickey Rooney demeanor as the old coot– at least until the last act.
By that point, we’ve already surrendered to the magic because we bought into the emotional core of the story and the loving relationship between a little boy and his dog-like dragon.
All you have to do is prepare the hanky for the saline eye squirts in the finale, and the passing urge to pick up a stick and conjure an imaginary spell.
THE EX-PRESS, August 12, 2016