When Disney tasked David Lowery, director of 2013’s hushed and self-consciously artsy crime movie Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, with remaking their half-remembered 1977 live-action/animation-hybrid roadshow musical Pete’s Dragon they must’ve known they’d be getting a radical reinterpretation. The original movie, a simple boy-and-his-dog story in which the dog is a friendly, occasionally invisible, hand-drawn dragon, is a broad, galumphing, protracted, insufferable, fumblingly wacky thing. Lowery’s update is a complete improvement, excavating the title and central relationship, changing and elevating the rest. I’d go out on a limb and suggest the result is far better than even the wildest studio expectations. Here’s a movie that’s sensitive and tender, about a boy who is orphaned in a car wreck and left to fend for himself in the woods of the Pacific northwest, making an unlikely friend in a big, furry, green dragon. Lovingly and patiently told, the movie is reverent with tough material artfully suggested, and an impressive respect for the mind of a child.
Firstly, Lowery and his co-writer Toby Halbrooks approach the movie with a great degree of seriousness in representing the mindset of their lead. While Pete grows to love and trust this creature, we see the confidence and tenaciousness of childhood innocence enduring in the face of trauma. After six years in the woods, he’s discovered by people from the nearby town, including a forest ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) who takes him in while investigating his situation. He’s at a loss upon returning to the human world after several years as a wild child, his long hair and fiercely intense stare telling the story of his troubles and his survival. He yearns for a family, but separated from his dragon he can only think of running back to the home he knows. Lowery works with young actor Oakes Fegley to make a wholly convincing performance that’s unlike other kids’ roles in big CG-heavy spectacles. It’s closer in tone and effect to Jacob Tremblay in Room, or a similarly feral boy in Truffaut’s The Wild Child. Here’s a real boy in unreal circumstances.
This leads to the movie’s second welcome expression of respect for children’s minds. It’s a movie that understands a young audience’s ability to be drawn in by quiet and contemplation pitched at their level without a hint of condescension. Lowery has cinematographer Bojan Bazelli (The Lone Ranger) make still, soft poetry out of sun-dappled forests, which are ultimately as magical as its central effects’ performance. It paints a world of wonder, majesty, and scale, a young boy dwarfed by the natural world and then slowly coaxed out of it into society once more. There’s a real beauty and appeal to the world of the trees and hills, and a real boys’ adventure understanding of building a life there. It knows that fear of the unknown can hold you from living a better life, but the soft fear of the everyday can hold you complacent in a situation that’s not ideal. Tough stuff, but the filmmakers expect children to follow. Lowery is allowed the confidence to make effects secondary and bring to the fore human-scale emotions so elemental and simple that he need not surface them explicitly. For once, a family film leaves its emotional underpinnings unspoken, with faith in the intuitive interpretative power of children.
It works because the movie is so precisely cast, with Fegley’s strong child performance anchoring a sharp and clear ensemble. Dallas Howard projects maternal warmth, and it’s easy to see why the boy would be drawn to her as a protector and a sympathetic ear. She’ll be needed to protect him and his dragon from hunters (led by Karl Urban) who wish to capture the legendary beast. Other kind adults include Robert Redford, bringing decades of weathered stardom to a subtle and warm effort of grandfatherly charm, and Wes Bentley as Howard’s husband, a man who hardly believes in the magic around him. Then there’s their young daughter (Oona Laurence), who is skeptical but eager to get involved in helping this strange boy. It’s a movie about childlike sense of wonder and possibility, but with grounding in reality. Confidently moving in its portrait of the good parents can do, and the pain a friendship can alleviate, it’d be a fine drama without the dragon.
But there is a dragon, and it’s the last piece in the movie’s emotional core. The movie turns on the relationship between a kid and a special effect, and it works as well as it did in E.T., Free Willy, and The BFG (Disney’s other good soft-spoken wonderment about an orphan and a towering magical being this summer). Lowery makes the smart choice to shorthand the emotional connection by making the impressively tactile CG creature not an impish animated sidekick but a big, furry, endearing, overgrown puppy dog. An early scene finds the fantastical animal quizzically tipping his head to fit a log he’s carrying between his teeth through a narrow opening between two trees. It’s such a dog-like action, as are his soft cries when Pete goes missing, and his wet-eyed search for the boy as he softly wings his way towards town. He’s playful and protective, capable of cute energy and growling loyalty. It’s smart to make him at once oversized astonishment, and a down-to-earth pet.
The movie embraces stillness and silence, has long passages of human emotion set to wistful folk music and a melancholy mood, but it somehow doesn’t diminish the dragon or make him seem out of place. As the movie escalates to effects and a flourish of climactic action, it still places him in the frame as just another character. (One shot even holds him out of focus in the background while humans tearfully reunite, a sight so casual it takes a moment to realize how daring it is to spend part of the animation budget on a shot where it’s not the focus.) We’re to be amazed not only by what happens, but how it plays out in its characters’ feelings and relationships. This is a rare family movie of restraint. It doesn’t rush manically from setpiece to setpiece or gag to gag. It unfolds patiently, allows itself the time to let characters inhabit believable physical and emotional spaces, and trusts in its audience’s ability to care without any more handholding than a soaring score and strong performances at its heart. If this is what can happen when you give a remake’s reigns to smart filmmakers with real vision and something meaningful to communicate, than Disney should do this more often.