Admittedly, the original “Pete’s Dragon” was not in my list of films to rewatch as a child. I’ve seen it once, maybe twice, but it never really stuck with me like some of their other features did such as “The Jungle Book” or “Old Yeller.” So, going into the 2016 edition of “Pete’s Dragon,” I knew of the original, but my memory of it was somewhat faded.
But 2016’s “Pete’s Dragon,” whether you are a fan of the original or not, is its own beast, so to speak. It’s not a musical, and it doesn’t need to be. It works in its own magic by being this beautiful tale of a boy and his dragon, and nothing more. In a summer that’s been filled with loud, expensive disappointments, “Pete’s Dragon” flies into theaters and reminds us that a simple story can work wonders on our emotions.
Before the title appears on the screen, “Pete’s Dragon” is already tugging at your heart. A catastrophic event leaves a young boy stranded in the woods in the Pacific Northwest. Years pass, and he’s evolved into a sort of Tarzan-like figure, running shirtless through the forest and living off of whatever it provides him. But he’s not entirely alone. This boy named Pete (an extraordinary Oakes Fegley) has a dragon named Elliott by his side. The dragon is a big, green, and furry creature that is like a loyal pet. He’s playful, and he means well.
Elsewhere, Meacham (Robert Redford) claims to have seen a dragon in the forest, but no one believes him, not even his own daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard). But when a logger (Karl Urban) strolls into town looking to rid of every tree there is in Millhaven, that’s when the residents believe that maybe Meacham is right about this dragon.
The 2016 “Pete’s Dragon” was directed by David Lowery, an indie director who made waves with 2013’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” This is his first big-budgeted feature, and, while it’s not perfect, it hits enough of the right notes to make it a solid, family adventure. There are never moments that become too cutesy or overly sentimental.
Lowery owes a lot to Steven Spielberg and “E.T.” for the feel of his “Pete’s Dragon” remake. It plays like an old-fashioned summer blockbuster with a lot of heart. It’s a film about friendship that captures your inner child and makes you wish you could own your own pet dragon.
Redford’s recounting of meeting the dragon serves, in part, as the film’s narration. It works in some aspects, but there are some moments, especially during the epilogue, where the narrative voice-over doesn’t add anything to the film. As a whole, though, Redford is a treat to watch.
The other gripe I have is that Urban’s subplot doesn’t feel as intriguing as it should be. There’s no real sense of danger when he comes onto the screen, and his character is just present for the sake of creating some kind of conflict. Urban is fine with what he has, but I just wanted there to be more.
Even in moments where the film might lean on the predictable side, Lowery and his crew make it to where certain scenes still hit you straight in the heart and make it impossible to not cry. It’s a beautifully filmed adventure that captures the spirit of a mythical fairy tale, and is a nice surprise in a month that’s typically the dumping grounds for Hollywood.