Will Schube thought he was seeing a visual performance of Sunset Rubdown’s Dragonslayer.
When I told my brother about how much I enjoyed Pete’s Dragon, his response was blunt: “But they turned the dragon into a dog.” Yeah, Elliott (Pete’s dragon—it’s really hard to avoid referring to the dragon as Pete) acts like a dog. But dogs are very cute, and massive, fire-breathing dragons that shuttle around little boys don’t exist so it’s hard to blame writer/director David Lowery for taking some liberties. Lowery’s updated version of the Disney cartoon succeeds for precisely this reason, because it’s the rare “children’s” film that takes itself—and, perhaps more importantly, its audience—seriously.
If you had Robert Redford + CGI Dragon in your 2016 office pool, you’re probably on your way to hand in your two weeks and buy a small island. But if you, like me, couldn’t in your wildest dreams imagine this combination, what’s most shocking about the linking of Redford and green fuzzy dragon is that the former plays a rather inconsequential role. His part is downsized and of service to the story’s pulse: the relationship between an orphan boy and his pet dragon, and the threats we perceive when we encounter what feels alien and unfamiliar; namely, to tame it.
It says a lot about Lowery’s precision and restraint that he’s able to engine this film without a full-blown All is Lost performance, or a few dashes of, “Hey, remember this dude from All The President’s Men?,” but that’s exactly what he does. This is a film about the natural world, much in the way Avatar was—but Lowery’s ego doesn’t incessantly get in the way of the story like Cameron’s did.
Back to that dragon. Elliott is adorable, far from the menacing creature we imagine as the archetypal dragon. It’s not immediately clear how smart a decision this was—creating a dragon both approachable and endearing. But by imbuing Elliott with a sense of humanity and charm, the film is able to be carried on his (massive) shoulders as opposed to those of a five-year-old child actor (played very well by Oakes Fegley) or Bryce Dallas Howard. Speaking of, Bryce Dallas Howard’s agent deserves a raise. Howard got to be in both Jurassic World and Pete’s Dragon. That puts her straight past CGI all-star and into the CGI Hall of Fame.
Perhaps one of the most amazing aspects of Pete’s Dragon is David Lowery’s involvement in it. As idiots bemoan the end of movies, dedicated independent filmmakers are consistently making the jump from mid-level art house films to massive, studio-backed projects. Jeff Nichols is making that same jump as we speak, and Disney’s willingness to put a $65 million budget on the back of a director whose prior feature cost roughly 16 times less that is encouraging, to say the least. Hell, Disney’s interest in a $65 million feature in the first place is encouraging. The film’s box office is already over $100 million, which feels important when considering the low stakes of the project. It’s a film unlikely to register a tick mark on Disney’s yearly gross income, but it brings a level of credibility and acclaim that can’t be gained no matter the price tag.
Lowery’s involvement is also peculiar because the indie film that catapulted him to this gig wasn’t particularly noteworthy. Ain’t Them Bodies Saints—released in 2013 starring Rooney Mara and Casey Affleck—is a good movie but isn’t innovative in any way . It’s clear that Lowery is a competent and deserving inheritor of a project like Pete’s Dragon—just look at the results—it’s just strange that Ain’t Them Bodies Saints is what led the Pete’s producers to this decision.
Lowery, on his excellent personal blog, recalls how he first pitched his take on Pete’s Dragon through the lens of an HSBC commercial. After seeing the film and the commercial, it’s striking how flawlessly Lowery incorporates some of the commercial’s cinematography and philosophy into his film. The film is an environmental struggle both personal and ideological, as a timber company threatens Pete’s home and the forest Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) loves so much and patrols as a park ranger. Stuck in the middle is Grace’s boyfriend, Jack (Wes Bentley) who runs the logging company with his domineering, take no prisoners brother (Karl Urban).
The film’s very pleasant 90 minutes centers around the struggles of these various personalities before it eventually resolves in the way most Disney films do, although Lowery’s creativity continues to shine through the film’s end. It’s a happy ending, sure, but it’s far from a cop-out. In its finale, it subtly crystallizes a point underlying the film’s entirety. There’s a certain magic in the universe that is inherently lost as soon as it’s attempted to be commodified and eventually Americanized. Whether that magic is a dragon or some other sort of being, the film stays true to its philosophy without having to lower itself to an advertised audience. A tremendous feat both ideologically and commercially, Pete’s Dragon is the rare children’s film you don’t need to be a kid to love.