Hot Take: Subtly heart-wrenching. Pete’s Dragon is a rare reboot. The storytelling is timeless and moving and the visuals are stunning. The best family movie of the summer.
I sort of remember seeing the original Pete’s Dragon as a child. It isn’t something that really stuck with me though. So, when I heard they were rebooting this film, the first word that came to mind was not the usual “unnecessary” but “why?” After seeing this Disney reboot which turns a trippy, live action/animation hybrid musical into a classic family drama, the answer to why was quickly discovered and the new version of Pete’s Dragon delivers something welcoming and worthwhile in the genre of family films.
From the moment Pete meets Elliot, his dragon friend, my heart felt as if it were in a blender. The whimsy and magic of the film is in their relationship. Elliot the dragon is completely CGI and dragons aren’t real but for 102 minutes, the creative team behind Pete’s Dragon makes him feel as real as any other character we’ve seen on film in some time. While Pete’s Dragon isn’t overly original — it’s basically the characters of the 1977 musical reimagined as E.T. meets The Jungle Book — there’s authenticity in the emotion of the film. It’s the kind of fantasy that my 12-year-old self would have thought was the greatest movie ever. (Until the next greatest movie ever.) The cool part about Pete’s Dragon though is that my 40-year-old self loved it, too!
If you allow yourself to get sucked into the fantasy and get over the fact that the film wants you to believe a dragon can live unseen and unknown in the deep woods of northern New England, you’re in for a movie that will tug at your heartstrings. The movie is equal parts heartwarming, heart-wrenching and, at times, heartbreaking. While the late night audience was mostly younger at the showing I attended, there were a few audience members — some young, some old — audibly crying in the theater. This wasn’t at the end of the movie, either. This was throughout the movie.
Pete’s Dragon has some great performances, too. Oakes Fegley plays Pete and is very believable as the boy lost in the woods who is befriended by Elliot. The two take care of each and form a bond that rings out loud and clear on the screen. The animators of the CGI dragon have created a special character in Elliot. So much so, his performance is moving. He never speaks but the facial expressions, grunts and howls tell you everything you need to know. This is Oona Laurence’s third consecutive excellent performance. The child star who recently shined in Bad Moms and last year was impressive in Southpaw delivers another thumbs up for her role as Natalie, the first person to see Pete in the woods. Bryce Dallas Howard adds emotional heft to her role as the park ranger Grace who also happens to be Natalie’s mom. Robert Redford narrates and plays a small role as Meacham. Everyone thinks Meacham is crazy because he talks about the time he saw a dragon in the woods. Karl Urban and Wes Bentley turn in serviceable performances, also.
From top to bottom, Pete’s Dragon is a real treat for any viewer willing to let themselves get caught up in the fantasy of a boy who becomes best friends with a dragon. For some, this might be too much of a stretch and if you’re that type of viewer, Pete’s Dragon won’t do much for you. That would be sad as this is a rare, special viewing experience that is accessible to all ages for viewers with the patience to wait as this classic story unfolds.
“Spoiler Free” Pros
The friendship between Pete and Elliot is impossible in reality but in this world it’s about as believable as any friendship we’ve seen on the big screen. Credit Fegley with a convincing performance as Pete and the animators of Elliot for creating on point facial expressions that speak a thousand words.
- Great Visuals
Even without the emotional investment the movie makes, the visuals of the flying dragon right down to his ability to camouflage himself are mesmerizing. At first glance, Elliot is a ferocious beast but as he hangs out and plays with Pete all day, he’s equal parts majestic and glorious.
“Spoiler Free” Cons
- If You’re Looking For the Original…
This isn’t the Pete’s Dragon you’re looking for.