Originally published on August 16, 2016. Pete’s Dragon is now available on Netflix Instant in the U.S.
Overview: A modern day revisionist retelling of the classic Disney film of 1977 that manages to deliver a wondrous reboot that miraculously supersedes the original. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures; 2016; Rated PG; 103 minutes.
Folklore: Starting with the opening sequence of David Lowery’s remarkable Pete’s Dragon remake, independent film actor and folk singer iconoclast Bonnie “Prince” Billy provides an original musical composition that serves to set the tone for the entire production. The strains and lyrics to “The Dragon Song” serve as an immediate frame of reference throughout Lowery’s on screen direction, imbuing certain folklore elements to the fantasy proceedings. What results is a wholly unexpected modern fable that comes completely out of left field in a contemporary movie landscape dominated by superheroes and pre-established franchise powerhouses.
Orphaned as a young boy in the vast forests and mountain ranges of the Pacific Northwest, young Pete (Oaks Fegley) finds himself set adrift in a picaresque landscape. Like the strains to the film’s theme song (which is referenced and recited throughout by several of the film’s characters), Pete’s Dragon functions like a regional storytelling tradition. In transporting the microcosm of fictional small town Millhaven to the macrocosm of an international cinematic spectacle, Lowery spins a modern narrative that is at once singularly alien and timelessly well-worn.
Myth: Instead of grounding his titular beast of fantasy against the grand tapestry of a filmed epic, Lowrey recasts Eliot the dragon as a kindly forest spirit of mythological proportions. The way in which Pete interacts with his faithful guardian is filled with the kind of humanitarian warmth analogous to dog’s relationship to man. Pete’s Dragon thus functions as something of an environmental parable, preaching the inherent goodness and empathy to be found in all of God’s creatures, both big and small. Eliot looks like a creature of potential danger, but in the telling of his own take on the mythic beast Lowrey imbues his titular dragon with far more wonder than awe.
In regards to the surrounding blue collar town of Millhaven, Eliot functions in a far more historied manner. Without any firsthand experience with the mythic beast, several denizens assume that Eliot will live up to far more volatile tales that have perforated the surrounding the culture, thanks in no small part to local story-spinner Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford). As his own daughter and well-traveled forest ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard) proves by her own skepticism, the magic inherent to the eponymous beast of Pete’s Dragon is not always read as being unambiguously friendly or welcome.
Legend: By the end of the film’s remarkably well paced 103 minute runtime, Lowrey manages to transform his Pete’s Dragon into a modern film of contemporary legend. Eliot is no longer a buffoonish caricature of childish imagination as he was in the original Disney film of 1977. Instead, Lowrey has recast the entire production against a whole new fantasy adventure that insists on being remembered and enjoyed long after the final credits have rolled. Evoking a subtle story of growing up according to the beat of your own drum, Lowrey’s latest production sees the independent director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints from 2013 making another bold step forward as a premiere American filmmaker.
Possessing a certain fondness for and of the making of its own legend, Pete’s Dragon looms large as a late summer release that is an absolute must-see. Like Steven Spielberg’s wondrous theatrical adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG, Disney has delivered another family movie masterpiece that proves to be as largely rewarding as its own oversized protagonist. Lowrey’s new movie effortlessly approaches the grand scale of its own ambition in the making of a new movie that should go down as being among the best pictures of the year.
Overall: Lowrey has outdone himself with his remake of the iconic Disney property of 1977, which should launch him to further acclaim and mainstream recognition.