Before any opening credits appear on the screen, it is clear that “Pete’s Dragon” is not going to be your run of the mill Disney movie. An event as traumatic as any to ever appear in a kid’s movie occurs and it leaves a five year old boy orphaned and abandoned in a massive forest. This gut-punch of an opening sequence quickly becomes a tearjerker and sets the tone for what may become one of the more popular family films of all time.
The story is nothing new or earth shattering, but it is put on film with such passion, focus, and commitment from director/writer David Lowery (sharing a screenplay credit with Toby Halbrooks) that it falls nothing short of “Spielberg-like.” Even better, it never panders and earns every single emotion.
After the opening, “Pete’s Dragon” moves forward five years to 1982 and Pete (Oakes Fegley) lives in the forest with his best friend, Elliott. Of course, Elliott is a huge dragon with green fur that moves and behaves like an oversized dog thus instantly locking on to the hearts of anyone who isn’t dead inside.
Pete and Elliott stumble across Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a park ranger who is out in this massive Pacific Northwest forest marking trees to keep from deforestation from her fiancé Jack’s (Wes Bentley) lumber company. Lowery doubles down on that massively convenient plot development and introduces you to Grace’s dad (Robert Redford), who has claimed for decades that he met a giant dragon in that same forest.
Pete and Elliott experience the biggest case of separation anxiety of all time when Jack’s brother and co-worker, Gavin (Karl Urban), catches Pete and he’s brought to civilization. With the help of Jack’s daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), Pete learns a bit about society and family, but still yearns to be back with his best pal, Elliott.
Instead of handcuffing them, Disney is smartly giving carte blanche to each of the directors they hire for their live-action reboots. Just like Jon Favreau’s personal take on “The Jungle Book”, this movie has all of the style and complexity that David Lowery showed in the criminally ignored “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.”
If “Pete’s Dragon” was made by a paint-by-numbers director, it would be a boring disaster. Instead, Lowery has made a family film that is honest, heartfelt, and has the look and feel of a movie containing a more personal tale than it actually is.
Other than Karl Urban, who is tasked with being a one note dummy bad guy, every character is fully developed and perfected acted out. Kids won’t notice it, but there is an underlying subtlety to Bryce Dallas Howard’s portrayal of a woman who is engaged to man whose wife has died and how she relates to his daughter. It’s never simply stated, but Howard and Wes Bentley’s interactions perfectly relay the pressures of that type of relationship.
Even at age 79, Robert Redford commands the screen. After he tells the story about the time he met a dragon to a group of kids, you will believe that he actually met a dragon. Even though at this point, Redford is more or less playing “Robert Redford”, it doesn’t matter. There’s a sparkle in his eyes and presence that simply cannot be ignored.
“Pete’s Dragon” pretty much hinges on the two characters referenced in the title and each of them perfectly carry the movie. Oakes Fegley is fantastic and considering he spends much of his time acting with a CGI dragon, it’s downright impressive he’s able to be as convincing as he is.
Speaking of that CGI dragon, not only is it beautifully rendered, the personality that exudes from it ensures its place in pop culture history. From the wet nose to the way it runs, Elliott is a giant dog that protects and befriends Pete in a way that only a dog can.
It isn’t hyperbole to claim that “Pete’s Dragon” may be the finest Disney movie ever made. It will be loved by children as a great adventure and equally embraced as a bittersweet tale about leaving your childhood behind by adults.
Also, if you pay close attention to the movie’s final moments, it will dawn on you that the movie could also have been titled “Elliott’s Human.”