Movie Review: ‘PETE’S DRAGON’ soars high on heart

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

PETE’S DRAGON |  102 min  | PG
Directed by: David Lowery
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes FegleyOona LaurenceWes BentleyKarl Urban

Back in 1977, a film debuted that touted the friendship between a boy and his dragon. Disney’s PETE’S DRAGON premiered to tepid reviews, ultimately failing to capture the lightning-in-a-bottle the company had with MARY POPPINS, which also blended live-action and animation. And, unlike most films in the Disney vault, the passage of time has done it no favors. However, with director David Lowery’s bigger, better interpretation, we finally have the PETE’S DRAGON we should’ve had all along. Set in a non-descript era before videogames and tech ruled kids’ lives, its captivating timelessness is a necessary escape from modern skepticism.

Pete (Oakes Fegley) has been living in the woods since he was orphaned at four years old. How was he able to do it? Through the care of his giant, furry caretaking dragon bestie, Elliot. Their time is usually spent frolicking, foraging for food, evading encroaching loggers and park rangers, and snuggled up together, reading a book. However, life changes when Pete accidentally makes his presence known to park ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), and it’s not long until she introduces him to her family – Papa Meacham (Robert Redford), fiancée Jack (Wes Bentley) and his daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). As Pete acclimates back into society, he tells them about his secret forest fwend. But Jack’s malevolent brother Gavin (Karl Urban) is out to capture this mythical dragon for himself.

Unlike Lowery’s previous cinematic outing (AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS), PETE’S DRAGON contains arresting amounts of immediacy, urgency and drive. Thematic elements deal with faith, belief, the loss of childhood naiveté and coming-of-age. Lowery, with help from co-screenwriter Toby Halbrooks, finds an effortless balance between dark and light, which comes across as quietly reflective. While it does contain studio tentpole-type action-fueled pursuits, the moments that are the most epic are the small, intimate ones, typically involving feelings shared between the characters. Sweet segments showcase Pete and Elliot’s loving, playful relationship and Grace getting in touch with her motherly side with Pete. The scene where Elliot overhears Pete reading to the humans hits like a gut-punch. His betrayal to Elliot is palpable. Even the supporting players have fully fleshed out character arcs. Their service to the plot and motivations are clear.

Oakes Fegley stars in PETE'S DRAGON. Photo courtesy of Disney.

Oakes Fegley stars in PETE’S DRAGON. Photo courtesy of Disney.

It’s clear Lowery and Halbrooks pulled heaps of inspiration from E.T.: THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL. It’s a spiritual cousin in terms of tone – not only as a spin on “a boy and his dog” story, but also by embodying Spielberg’s sense of childlike wonder and similar patterns of narrative fluidity. The use of guns threatening the “creature” stand out in almost the same shocking manner. There’s also discernible dashes of PONETTE (parental loss) and THE RED BALLOON (a red balloon is in Pete’s hospital room) in here too. Intensity in the third act is well crafted. The chase on the bridge could be mistaken as a generic action movie cliché, however, within the predictable action beats, character motivations are rarely lost. Their emotional drives are what ring louder in our souls than any chase or showdown. And trust me when I say the impacting footprint this film leaves on your heart is dragon-sized. Bring tissues because waterworks will occur. At the very least, it’ll leave a lump in your throat when you talk about it with others after.

Yes, the villain is a touch on the light side. Gavin’s dialogue is tad clunky and Urban, who is typically the MVP in any film, goes a little too broad with the material. Small blessings, though, as it could’ve been worse had Lowery and Halbrooks’ script given him too much to do. Also a minor annoyance is Daniel Hart’s swelling, saccharine score. It tends to overstay its welcome during a handful of scenes, rather than augment the narrative. As he did with Lowery’s SAINTS, one of Hart’s pieces utilizes clapping as if the movie is applauding itself. Thankfully that maddening track is disposed of early on, while there’s time to forget about its use.

Nevertheless, PETE’S DRAGON is the perfect way to update an already existing film – by never drawing from the nostalgia of the original, creating it’s own unique song.

PETE’S DRAGON opens on August 12.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.