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‘Pete’s Dragon’ (2016) review


Produced by James Whitaker
Screenplay by David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks
Based on Pete’s Dragon by Malcolm Marmorstein
Directed by David Lowery
Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley,
Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence,
and Robert Redford

Pete’s Dragon is a work of art, and when I say this, I literally mean Pete’s dragon—the green, giant, winged creature named Elliot that plays such an obvious and important role in the grand context of Disney’s latest family film.

A reimagining of the same studio’s 1977 live-action/animation hybrid, Disney breathes excellent new life into this story in all the right ways—beginning with, of course, the dragon.

Elliot is a product of remarkable visual CGI fabrication and even more astounding sound design, which combine to create a fantastical being who feels undeniably real, personable and rich. Close-ups of Elliot’s expressive eyes bring a perfect duality of spines chills and hearth warmth, as do his equally communicative cadences of growly purrs from deep down in his belly.

Just these efforts alone deserve recognition. Luckily, they exist in a film that consistently matches these qualities in nearly every way.

Directed by David Lowery (2013’s Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) from a debut screenplay by Toby Halbrooks, the film follows the adventure of a 10-year-old boy named Pete (fantastic newcomer Oakes Fegley, playing his take on a less-annoying version of the kid from last year’s Room).  Six years after a car crash claimed the lives of his parents (tastefully and uniquely filmed, by the way), Pete is discovered in the woods and taken in by small town forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), her fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley) and his daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence).

Only problem? Pete’s been living the past six years in the woods with his best friend, Elliot—an entity who until now was known only as the “Millhaven Dragon,” a fiction promoted through the yarns spun to neighborhood children by Grace’s father, Meacham (Robert Redford).

The trajectory of conflict occurs when Elliot is discovered by Jack’s brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), and his motley crew of construction workers currently tearing down trees in the forest for redevelopment. Gavin is a pretty thinly written villain, spewing cliché lines like “Boys, let’s go hunting!” and “That’s my dragon!” all while Urban delivers a scowl better suited to his role as Bones in the newest Star Trek films.

Thankfully, the movie doesn’t lose itself too much in this conflict, nor does it get wrapped up in some shoehorned environmental message (a worry I had early on as Bryce Dallas Howard walked around the forest, sadly shaking her head at all the trees marked with red spray paint). No, Pete’s Dragon is far more focused on elements of love, bonding, family and community—and these target zones accumulate into something truly grand. Lowery directs the film with a folksy, intimate vibe that turns the small town of Millhaven into a character in and of itself, while you can detect an almost Altman-esque capturing of all the townsfolk, even those without lines.

But this is Pete and Elliot’s story, through and through, as well as what this boy and beast (or, dog, if you will, considering Elliot’s canine-like personality traits) bring to the family of Grace, Jack and Natalie.

Here is where Pete’s Dragon finds its raw emotional power, and it’s all encapsulated in my very favorite scene from the movie, and one of my most cherished cinematic moments so far this year. It follows an action sequence of peril where lives were at risk, and the aftermath pinpoints exactly what this movie is all about—love.

When the major characters are reunited, Grace runs to her father. Jack runs to his daughter. And Pete runs to his dragon. All embraced in hugs while the score swelled and I wept softly in my seat.


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