Disney Studios continue to raid their back catalog of animated hits to remake into live-action films for a new era, and so far I’ve been underwhelmed by the results. (Let’s just say I’m not looking forward to the live-action remake of Wreck-It Ralph in 2041.) Yet I’ve given my disappointment some well-deserved time off after seeing the gemlike new version of Pete’s Dragon that comes out this week. Fort Worth product David Lowery makes the move up to a big Hollywood production by taking the borderline unwatchable, partially animated 1977 musical and turning it into a beautiful nonmusical film about a boy and his pet dragon. Readers of this publication can fairly say that we knew him when.
The movie begins with young Pete (Levi Alexander) being orphaned and stranded in the woods in a single stroke by a car accident, the one element of this story that feels like a cliché. He’s saved from death at the jaws of predators when he meets and befriends a friendly dragon, whom he names Elliot after a character in a children’s book that he was reading. Six years later, Elliot is imperiled when Pete (Oakes Fegley) is discovered living in the forest, first by a similarly aged girl named Natalie (Oona Laurence) who lives in the lumber town nearby, and then by her mill-owning dad (Wes Bentley) and his forest-ranger fiancée Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard).
Lowery takes a huge gamble bringing out the dragon for us to see right away, and it pays off. Of course, this is 2016 and Lowery can do what filmmakers 39 years ago could have only dreamed of. The CGI creature looks more canine than reptilian with its green fur and paws, and besides giving Pete rides on its back, it can also look cuddly or fierce, sad or pleased, as the story requires. The cartoon dragon in the 1977 movie was animated by Don Bluth and shared the same flaw as all Bluth’s animal creations — it looked unintelligently cow-like. This mute one here, on the other hand, seems appropriately like a being with a consciousness that we can only partially fathom.
Elliot is of a piece with the overall vision here. Lowery is that rare filmmaker who assimilates into the Disney house style without surrendering the qualities that made him unique. Maybe that’s because his wonderstruck style was never that far from Disney’s frame of reference in the first place. He and Bojan Bazelli (the Montenegrin cinematographer of The Lone Ranger and Hairspray, giving the performance of his life here) make the forest into a crepuscular, mysterious place where the dragon might conceivably live and go unnoticed. Lowery is cagey about the setting, carefully placing the story in an indeterminate location in North America in the not-too-distant past, which helps maintain the fable-like ambiance. The original movie’s hokey pseudo-Broadway songs are replaced by rough-hewn background tunes by not-unexpected acts like The Lumineers, St. Vincent, and Will Oldham. The finely judged performances by Fegley, Laurence, Howard, and Robert Redford as Grace’s dad who has seen the dragon before contribute to the atmosphere as well. Pete’s puzzled interactions with the civilized world are meticulously observed enough to have come out of Room. You keep waiting for some misstep to dispel the mood of fragile lyricism, some touch that renders the movie too silly or grim or monotonously poetic. It never happens, because Lowery is so masterful at striking the right tone and has always known how to filter the world through a child’s perspective.
The near-feral child at the center of this movie puts it on the same turf as the remake of The Jungle Book, but Pete’s Dragon is a better film in almost every way, and it succeeds where The BFG notably failed. Pete must grow up and join the human world where he belongs, and this point is powerfully illustrated near the end when Lowery brings back the children’s book from the beginning. (It’s called Elliot Gets Lost, and it was written for the film by Lowery and his writing partner Toby Halbrooks.) The filmmakers’ understanding of the compromises and necessities of getting older makes this one of the wisest movies about childhood since Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are, a lofty and wholly deserved comparison. David Lowery proves here that he has all the tools he needs to become one of cinema’s great filmmakers. Whether he will remains to be seen, but his magic-kissed Pete’s Dragon is something to savor right now.