What is it with Disney and orphans?
It’s an age-old adage in storytelling that if you want to create a sense of danger you stick a kid somewhere dark and scary, possibly a forest, and take away all parental supervision. What Pete’s Dragon does remarkably well is to remind us is that the forest can also be a place of magic.
Based on Don Chaffey & Bluth’s 1977 original — a charming but hopelessly twee musical featuring a goofy animated lizard — this remake provides an unlikely followup for director David Lowery. His last film, 2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, was a modern-day Badlands, a mythic Malickian romance set in the American West. Nevertheless, this goes to prove, as with the Marvel franchise, that Disney have an uncanny ability to seek out talent, wherever it may lie, and put it to work with the right material.
Pete’s Dragon (2016) is a film with a grandly folkloric feel to it — albeit with more storybook than the lyrical poetic one that characterized his earlier work.
A wildly different proposition from its part-animated predecessor, the film presents Pete, not as a freckly, ginger-haired moppet, but an All-American Mowgli, a lovably feral foundling living deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. He likes to climb trees, growl at bears, and howls like a wolf when in distress. Then there’s his best friend and protector, Elliott, who just so happens to be a giant fury dragon who occasionally turns invisible. Just ‘cause.
An ungainly, winged heffalump, fuzzy and vibrant green, the film thrives or withers based on our attachment to him, and accustomed as we have become to living, breathing CGI creations, Elliott is nothing less than a marvel. Curiously doglike and prone to ill-timed sneezes — there’s just a touch of Scooby Doo to him — every detail, from the way his nostrils flare when excited to that chipped front tooth, are utterly convincing. Existing seamlessly within an authentic, if somewhat idealized, world, Elliott could well Weta Digital’s single biggest achievement to date.
There’s a real feeling of craftsmanship to the film as a whole, the impression of love given and care taken; as in the wood carvings made by Mr. Meachum (a wonderfully bucolic Robert Redford), whose oft-repeated, fondly regarded tale of an encounter with a dragon forms part of the fabric of community life. Pete’s Dragon instead finds its redheaded quotient in his daughter, the radiantly maternal Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a well-meaning forest ranger who, from their first encounter, sets about trying to solve the mystery of Pete.
She, like the rest of the cast, aren’t given much of a back-story, or much depth of characterization; they wear it on their faces. When you look at her fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley), owner of the local mill, or the good-natured Sheriff Dentler (The Wire’s Isiah Whitlock Jr.), you know exactly who they are and where they comes from.
There’s a purity and simplicity to the film — you may not even notice that no one seems to have access to a camera phone — that might suggest fable were the film so refreshingly free from sanctimony. Far from the moustache-twirling snake-oil salesman of the original, the villain here, Gavin (Karl Urban), is merely cocksure and slightly self-interested woodsman; though he shows concern for Pete when it counts (“Let me know how Pete’s doing, will ya!”).
Lowery and Tony Halbrook’s script also refrains from taking easy potshots at the morality of either hunting or the timber industry, avoiding a trite conservationist message that, while perhaps noble, would certainly have served to date the film and so diminish the magic.
Shot with a golden hour clarity by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, there’s no doubt that this wilderness should be preserved and cherished. Pete’s Dragon is wonderful and, at times, truly exhilarating, like in an early scene when a younger Pete runs through the forest, pursued on either side by wolves, or when an infuriated Elliott goes on the rampage, toppling trees on either side as loggers flee, terrified.
When Elliott vanishes into the air — no, into the motes of dust illuminated by a beam of sunlight — the effect is truly enchanting. As in The Jungle Book, the forest is a place of total independence, a place where you can be truly free. Like childhood, though, you can’t stay there forever. As the camera soars high above the misty treetops, you may wish you could.
At the very least, Pete’s Dragon (2016) highlights Disney’s continuing ability to alchemize beloved old properties into freshly minted gold. As the studio continues to go from strength to strength, it seems that nothing short of an orphan meat scandal at the Magic Kingdom could take the sheen off the House of Mouse.