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Pete’s Dragon Is All Joy And Wonder Covered In Fur (Movie Review)

petes dragon thumbFollowing the success of The Jungle Book and Cinderella, Pete’s Dragon may not be the film people expected Disney to remake next.  Mistakenly seen by some as a classic, that 1977 film came and went with little regard, but co-writer/director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) has swooped in with a low-key character drama that happens to feature a big, green dragon. Fortunately, the film has plenty to offer for anyone in need of a film that is both sweet and soulful.

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The film starts off with an incredibly sad prologue involving an accident that causes young Pete to lose his parents and head into the wild. Six years later, Pete (Oakes Fegley) has become a shaggy-haired tree-climber. How has he survived this long? With the help of a fury dragon named Elliot of course.

It should be no surprise that Pete is eventually found by other humans. These local townsfolk include Bryce Dallas Howard as Grace, a forest ranger; Wes Bentley as Jack, Grace’s boyfriend and owner of the lumber mill; Oona Laurence as Natalie, Jack’s daughter; Karl Urban as Gavin, Jack’s brother and a hunter; and Robert Redford as Grace’s father who once claims to have seen a dragon himself once. That’s a pretty strong cast and the film doesn’t forget it.

For the few who cherish the original, this remake is more an update than anything. The story has been changed around almost entirely so its focus can be on how Pete deals with a tragedy. While it is fun to see Pete bounding around the forest and splashing in ponds with Elliot, the film wisely commits to the humans involved. That’s a great benefit for a film that is effective when watching Elliot soar through the sky to the same degree as watching Pete speaking with newfound adults inside a house.

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The film plays well to that degree based on both Lowery’s handle of the characters and the film’s handle on Elliot. For all the money Disney could have used to show off the latest and greatest effects, their big, green dragon is wisely made to look as natural as possible. Elliot has some big moments, but the dragon never overshadows the performers. He is a large presence, but his actions are not what drive the story and that is a good thing.

That is not to say that kind of approach is inherently bad, but Pete’s Dragon has found ways to be about something more. Credit for that certainly goes to young Fegley. As Pete, Fegley has a lot to do that paints him both in an earnest light and an introspective one. We see his emotions and a good amount of physicality (regardless of the stunt people involved) and it plays well to who he is. There is also the benefit of the cast he has to work with.

I can’t say I was necessarily won over by the constant wide-eyed looks Howard gave to the various new things she kept discovering in a forest she insists she knew like the back of her hand. However, I can say her relationship with the rest of the cast played well. On the other side you have actors like Redford and Bentley who are only given so much, yet communicate plenty as to what types of people they are, which feels authentic. Laurence does enough to match Fegley, without being relegated to anything short of what’s necessary.

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Really (and I don’t mean to single him out to a new paragraph), it’s Urban who seems to be a bit all over the place. It’s understandable to see actors go “big” in a family film, which is the problem I kind of have with Howard as well, but the weakest writing comes down to what Urban is supposed to be. As a result, it’s awkward to see him play up the antagonist, given what little we know about him. It does little to take away from the wonder, but given how light on plot the film really is, it’s the only portion where you see certain machinations at work.

Speaking to other positives though, this movie looks great. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli does a tremendous job of capturing the Pacific Northwest in a variety of ways. Be it the forests we see or the visuals that sit well with the emotions at play, this seems like one of the best shot mainstream films I will see all year. The music is fine as well, with Daniel Hart providing a sort of folksy score to match some soundtrack choices and the overall vibe of the film. There is also something refreshing to take away from a film set in the 80s that doesn’t go out of its way to make that apparent.

Given that Elliot is a dragon that few have ever seen, I’m happy not to have spoken all that much about him. What matters is how much of a visual joy this film is, even when it comes down to scenes not involving Elliot. Pete’s Dragon works as an engaging family film for both the atmosphere it captures and the character-based story it tells. The fact that an adorable dragon is a substantial factor is almost beside the point, but then again The Iron Giant and E.T. are certainly memorable for their iconic creations in addition to the characters. This film may not be at that level, but it does its best to soar.

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Writer/Reviewer, Film Lover, Podcaster, Video Game Player, Comic Book Reader, Disc Golfer & a Lefty. There are too many films, TV, books, etc. for me to list as favorites, but I can assure that the amount film knowledge within my noggin is ridiculous, though I am always open to learning more. You can follow me on Twitter @AaronsPS4, see what else I am up to at TheCodeIsZeek.com & check out my podcast, Out Now with Aaron and Abe, on iTunes.

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