This year’s biggest surprise.
Pete’s Dragon is the latest adaptation of a classic Disney film, and this one may be the best yet. After a horrible car accident, a very young Pete (Oakes Fegley) is left stranded alone in an uncharted forest. Things are looking bleak for Pete before he runs into a giant, fluffy, mysterious green dragon he promptly names Elliot. After six years of surviving in the wilderness with Elliot, Pete is discovered by forest ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard). After being brought back to civilization, Pete is desperate to escape back to the forest to be reunited with his dragon friend. But problems arise once Gavin (Karl Urban), brother of Grace’s boyfriend Jack (Wes Bentley), sets off to hunt and capture Elliot for his own gain.
The special thing about Pete’s Dragon is the childlike magic and wonderment that director David Lowery is able to infuse into the film. Pete’s Dragon as a film feels so innocent and endearing, and it’s all thanks to how well Lowery is able to portray the relationship between Pete and Elliot. Almost immediately, you are able to buy into the narrative that Pete and Elliot have been surviving together for six years, and in just a few short scenes you are emotionally invested in their friendship.
Elliot is different from your typical dragon, very much by design. Instead of being reptilian and leathery, Elliot has more in common with that of a house cat or dog. Not just in terms of appearance, but behavior as well. Elliot is an amalgamation of all of the best qualities of any pet you’ve ever had, with an authentic sense of innocence, curiosity, and playfulness, which allowed me to instantly fall in love with this computer-generated behemoth. But Elliot is only one portion of a pair, and the effectiveness of Elliot would be rendered moot without an anchoring presence in Pete. Luckily, Oakes Fegley is a supremely talented young actor, as he has to act against and connect with a CGI dragon, and with the help of skillful directing from Lowery, he somehow manages to pull it off. It’s rare for me to actually be impressed by a child actor, but Fegley blew me away.
After their inevitable split up once Pete is picked up by Grace, I felt the genuine heartbreak that Pete experienced. This is the one and only friend Pete has ever had, and likely the only friend Elliot has ever known, and the emotional distress that this separation causes them is quite tangible. When you get down to it, there isn’t a whole lot of actual “plot” to be found in Pete’s Dragon. Lowery instead smartly focuses his sights on character development and interactions, overflowing the film with heart.
It’s much more of a slice-of-life film, with a focus on family relationships. Not only does the film find time to craft a loving friendship between Pete and Elliot, it also is able to explore a successful (if predictable) surrogate mother/son relationship between Grace and Pete, a sweet sibling relationship between Grace’s daughter and Pete, and even a meaningful arc between Grace and her father, played by the legendary Robert Redford. All of these relationships are properly fleshed out, with their emotional beats left feeling earned, and this is all achieved with the world’s most adorable dragon at the center of it all. At its core, Pete’s Dragon is about family, and for the most part, the film is able to weave this theme into its story quite naturally.
The film’s biggest problem arise from the source of its conflict: Gavin. Played well by Urban, the film flirts with a sibling rivalry dynamic between Gavin and Jack, but not enough time is dedicated to that subplot for maximum effectiveness, which in turn undercuts the drama that should exist in Gavin’s hunt for Elliot. I was unable to buy into Gavin’s motivations, which lead to a few of the dramatic elements feeling a tad forced. But that is but a single element of Pete’s Dragon, and what it lacks in an effective villain it overwhelmingly makes up for with all its other excellent character work.
The thing is, Gavin as a character wasn’t really needed. He acts as more of a plot device in the film, an efficient means to kick off the climax and pave the way for an extremely satisfying emotional conclusion. And in that way, it works. The film has bigger fish to fry than Gavin, as its main concerns are the relationships lauded earlier. Pete’s Dragon feels refreshingly old school in this way. It has simple ambitions in crafting an emotionally deep and engaging relationship between a young boy and big, lovable, fluffy green dragon. It isn’t a wholly original story, but it is one told with such copious amounts of warmth, charm, and soulful sentiment, that it’s deceptively easy to fall in love with.