Much like Spike Jonze’s still underrated Where the Wild Things Are, David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon is a full submersion into the experience of childhood. At once, it is a movie obsessed with a multitude of thematic concerns—from environmental protection to toxic masculinity—and one that’s simply focused on producing the same overwhelming emotions that come from nearing puberty. The original film was a typical Disney “believe in magic” mass appeal, but Lowery’s remake is something more, something special.
Immediately, the gentle grace that dominated Lowery’s previous work, the brilliant Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, is evident. Instead of the jarring, frightening car crash that we have come to expect, Lowery slowly and silently overturns a car and removes the savagery from a son losing his parents, leaving only stilled sadness. Alone in his sorrow, scared of what lurks in the woods at night, Pete (Oakes Fegley) meets Elliot the dragon. Fuzzy and not scaled, gentle and not beastly, the green behemoth is an enormous puppy dog who instantly loves the little boy he’s just found.
Six years later, a park ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard); her fiancee, Jack (Wes Bentley); Jack’s daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence) and Jack’s misguided, oafish brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), find David living in the woods as a near-feral child. Although he tries to escape several times, David is not dragged kicking and screaming back into the “real world.” Scared though he may be, he trusts Grace and Natalie, even while he longs for his only old friend, a lonely dragon in the woods. And there it is, the crux of it all: a boy torn between what was and what will be, dealing with the emotional heft that comes from being asked to grow up.
Elliot is one of the most singularly spectacular CGI characters of all time. This doesn’t mean he looks hyperreal. Quite the opposite, actually. Meachem (Robert Redford), the wise-old-man there to put a bow on things, describes the magic that’s felt from simply being near Elliot. That magic pops the fuzzy beast off the screen, his connection with Pete transcending the typical “boy and his dog” motif. The humans are somewhat less impressive, outside of the glassy eyed and profoundly kind Howard. Fegley is just fine as the brave wild child, but Redford phones it in and Urban’s facial expressions can’t quite find the right blend of sincerity and silliness needed.
But there’s a reason this isn’t called Pete’s Humans. The soaring, swooping, crashing dragon becomes a physical representation of pure childhood, something we must all leave behind no matter how much love is there. Lowery doesn’t shy away from the sadness that comes with that moment, nor does he allow that intrinsic darkness to mute the optimistic light of the life to come. Pete’s Dragon is a powerful, gorgeous, lyrical ode to youth, one that’s made all the more impressive by the way in which it feels like it is speaking individually to you.
Grade = A