Rated PG. Running time: 1 hour 42 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 2; Language 0; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up the other; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.
David Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks prove that it is possible to surpass the original film in a remake. The 1977 Pete’s Dragon was a musical about a boy and a dragon that had a bizarre adventure tale with villains straight out of a 19th century melodrama. This one is a much warmer story about family, belonging, and the outsider, with scenes so lyrical that one is glad the film moves slower than the old one, giving us time to take in the beauty. (You probably have already seen the trailer showing the dragon flying into a sky made scarlet by the setting sun.) And none of the characters break suddenly into song. The totally reworked tale is so good, and the two young actors playing the children so likable, that my first thought at the end of the film was, “This has the hallmarks of a Steven Spielberg film!”
Like Bambi, this film begins, before the titles come on, with a tragedy in a forest. On a highway cutting through the forested mountains of the Pacific Northwest four year-old Pete (Levi Alexander) sits in the back of his father and mother’s car reading a book about a boy and a lost puppy named Elliot. Suddenly a deer sprints across the road, the father swerving the car so sharply that it goes off the road, turning over and crashing so hard that the parents are killed outright. The tearful boy packs his book into his backpack and trudges off into the forest.
Deep in the forest a pack of wolves stalk the boy. However a large dragon suddenly appears, driving the wolves off. The small boy is still fearful that he is about to be eaten, but this is not the dragon of ancient lore—indeed, it has long green fur rather than scales, giving it an almost cuddly look. It offers its huge Paul so that the boy can climb up onto it and find the shelter he needs. To their credit, they do not anthropomorphize the creature, though it is shown as intelligent as a dolphin, communicating with grunts and a knowing look in its large eyes. Pete decides to give it the name of the lost dog in his book, Elliot.
The story jumps ahead six years, and Pete (Oakes Fegley) is now a nimble footed denizen of the forest. (You will no doubt think of Mowgli in Disney’s other orphan movie, Jungle Book.) There are endearing scenes of him frollicking with his protector, the boy trusting Elliot so much that he jumps off a high cliff, confident that his companion will swoop down and catch him. Elliot not only can fly, but he also can make himself invisible or, chameleon-like, blend in with the folliage and tree trunks. Then comes the day when the boy sees others of his species for the first time.
Members of a lumbering crew, equipped with axes, chainsaws, and a huge bulldozer ar e cutting down trees. The crew is headed by the brothers Jack (Wes Bentley) and Gavin (Karl Urban). Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence), about the same age as Pete, is with them, as well as Jack’s fiancée Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a member of the Forest Service dedicated to protecting any wild life endangered by the loggers.
It is Natalie who first catches a glimpse of Pete. Walking into the forest where he is hiding from her behind a tree, she keeps looking until they are face to face. Grace is drawn to the boy, taking him to the cabin near the logging center of Millhaven that she shares with Jack and Natalie. She talks with Pete about how he has survived out in the wilderness, and he draws her a crude picture of Elliot. This seems impossible to her rational mind—and yet she has heard tales of a dragon living in the forests. It was from her own father Meachum (Robert Redford), who delights in telling children about the dragon as he wields chisel and mallet to carve a likeness of the creature. She has always discounted her father’s story of how he once encountered the dragon while trekking through the mountains. He tells her that sometimes she misses what is right before her eyes.
The next day however, when Grace, Natalie, and Meachum return with Pete to the cave in which he has lived with Elliot, she becomes a believer. Pete enters the dark cave and emerges a moment later, his finger raised to his lips to shush them. The adults are wide-eyed as the giant dragon follows behind him. Back in Millhaven the whole town is abuzz with the news. It is then that the villain emerges from Gavin. He sets forth with his crew to capture Elliot, planning to make his fortune by exhibiting the huge creature. When he succeeds, the roles of protective dragon and sheltered boy are reversed. Pete now must rescue and help his chained up friend, and thus the film picks up its pace as he and Natalie collaborate to free their friend.
Before this fast-paced sequence, the film affirms the importance of family. There is a quiet night-time scene in which Jack, with Grace and the two children cuddled up with him, reads aloud a story before the fireplace. Elliot has come looking for his little friend. He spies them through the window, recognizing at once the appropriateness of his charge finding at last a human family. He sort of sighs, thus making us aware that we are witnessing the ultimate outsider longing for inclusion himself.
There are numerous warm scenes such as the above, along with some funny ones involving Pete becoming used to civilized living. Elliot’s character also is rounded out by the way he flies and the sometimes clumsy landings he makes. Early on when Meachum tells his unbelieving daughter that she should keep her eyes open lest she miss something right in front of her, I thought of my favorite quotation from Elizabeth Barrett Browning, drom her long poem “Aurora Leigh:”
“Earths crammed with heaven,
And every common bush aflame with the presence of God;
But only he who sees takes off his shoes.
The rest sit around it and pluck blackberries.”
With shots of misty forest and crimson skies Bojan Bazelli’s photography in its own way is as lyrical as Daniel Hart’s music. The CGI effects creating the dragon are totally convincing, as are the members of the cast. If you are looking for the almost perfect family film, this is it.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the September issue of VP.
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