Pete’s Dragon has a vital ingredient that many fantasy films lack: a true sense of wonder. For that we must thank director and co-writer David Lowery, a newcomer to mainstream moviemaking who is best known for the indie release Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013). He has an understanding of how to make a modern Disney film that checks all the right boxes and leaves us fully satisfied. No wonder the studio has signed him to pilot their upcoming remake of Peter Pan.
Wide-eyed Oakes Fegley plays Pete, a little boy who is forced to fend for himself in the dense forest of the Pacific Northwest. His only friend and ally is a furry, playful dragon named Elliot. In the nearest town, old-timer Robert Redford has spun stories for years about his encounter with a dragon, but only the neighborhood kids believe him—certainly not his daughter, park ranger Bryce Dallas Howard. She soon has reason to change her tune.
Sincere performances help a lot but Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks give the actors good material to work with. Karl Urban plays the nominal villain but he isn’t really a bad guy, just someone who feels the need to prove himself alongside his brother, lumber company manager Wes Bentley. By populating the story with recognizable human beings instead of “types,” Lowery and Halbrooks have created a film that grownups can enjoy alongside kids.
As for Elliot the dragon, his wholly original design—and fur—take some getting used to, but his “performance” is winning and his interaction with Pete is completely believable. Score another point for the geniuses at Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital who bring this character and his environment to life so well.
As for comparisons with the 1977 Disney film of the same name, I remember seeing Pete’s Dragon at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan and leaving with a throbbing headache. I also thought Elliot was singularly unattractive. By distancing itself from the story, setting, and design of the original, this movie stands on its own and earns its stripes. Don’t let this one get away: it’s the best family entertainment of the summer.