It would be easy to condemn Disney for their current double-dipping trend if they weren’t doing it so well. It seemed a rather silly notion, at first. Remaking the animated hits of yesterday into live action epics felt cheap, a way to line their coffers by catering to nostalgia at the risk of lessening the impact of their originals. But, somehow, they keep managing to pull it off, breathing new life into their classics without sullying their legacy.
Depending on who you talk to, the original Pete’s Dragon is either a high point or low point in the Disney oeuvre. There are those who revere the story of a live action child and his animated dragon as the pinnacle of children’s entertainment, a camp with which I never identified. Both as a child and an adult, the movie bores me, and I’ve never seen its appeal. However, its existence is now, in my mind, justified thanks to its remake, a movie that demands to be taken with seriousness and solidifies Disney’s standing as a producer of top-notch live action entertainment.
Like the original, Pete’s Dragon follows a young boy, Pete (Oakes Fegley), and his Dragon, Elliot. That’s about where the similarities between the two end, however. In this version, Pete is the victim of a car accident that kills his parents, leaving him stranded in the woods. Rescue comes not from the authorities, but from Elliot, and Pete begins a new, feral life with his fantastic friend. Six years later, Pete is discovered by park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) after her fiancée’s Jack’s (Wes Bentley) logging operation begins to encroach on his home. Taken back to civilization, Pete begins a process of readjustment made difficult by the absence of his fire breathing friend. Elliot, for his part, has difficulties of his own as Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban) becomes determined to hunt and capture the dragon.
For all its simplicity—it is, after all, a kid’s movie—there’s a shocking sophistication to the filmmaking that makes it easy to forget that you’re just watching a kid’s movie. Writer/director David Lowery has managed the seemingly impossible—a live action movie for kids that reaches the artistic heights of the most heartfelt of indies. This isn’t mere kid’s stuff, no. This is a film that begs for consideration at every turn, assailing you with beautiful imagery and stunning shots.
That’s always been sort of the problem with live action films for children. The meat and potatoes of filmmaking is often forsaken in the name of the lowest common denominator. Artistry is thrown by the wayside as studios rush to just put whatever on the screen. Not so with Pete’s Dragon. Lowery approaches each scene with an auteur’s eye, carefully and considerately crafting a wonderfully beautiful film that raises the bar not just for children’s cinema but for cinema in general. Anyone worried that Lowery, previously a darling of the indie scene, might have sold out can rest easy knowing that the same commitment to the art of filmmaking and the narrative craft he brought to his microbudget features is found here.
At its heart, Pete’s Dragon, like its forebear, is a film about the struggles of growing up and finding your place in the world. The young Fegley does an impressive job at portraying his character’s complexities, finding the perfect balance between regular kid and feral wild child. He and Elliot frolic through the forest, carefree, howling at the moon and enjoying a life of pure freedom. Freedom, however, isn’t enough, not when Pete is reintroduced to humanity. He struggles to shed his wild side, pitting him in a battle against himself as he readjusts to the life of a normal kid. It’s beautiful to watch, really, and under Lowery’s guiding hand, it feels emotionally elevated.
Disney can churn out all the remakes it wants if this is to be the end result. Pete’s Dragon is a bold and beautiful reimagining that breathes new life into its story in awe inspiring ways. In a summer filled with forgettable films, Pete’s Dragon is a reminder of the magic of filmmaking that’s a must see for film lovers of all ages.
Pete’s Dragon is now playing in theaters everywhere.