Pete's Dragon full movie review - Pete's Dragon is the most definitive reason why remakes exist!!
It'd be almost pointless to call Pete's Dragon a remake at all. Built on the core foundations of the original, the movie takes such a fresh the angle on it that I'm surprised that they kept the name.
Rightfully so, since the original was - however ironically fun - weirdly outdated even for its time; obviously trying to replicate the success of Mary Poppins, the movie squanders the otherwise interesting "Calvin and Hobbes" influences in favor of bizarre song numbers and old-timey camp. It takes a special talent (namely David Lowery coming off the shoes of the indie crowd with Ain't Them Bodies Saints) to rework this from the ground up and ultimately surpass the original by a country mile, and the people involved succeeded. Pete's Dragon captures the childlike awe and the rustic setting like the original but with a much more meditative, gentle tone, resulting in the most honest and emotional family tale of 2016.
The movie starts with a very young Pete as the sole survivor of a tragic car crash (a sequence that defines messed up) in the isolated woods in the Pacific Northwest. Alone with no family left, he scours for refuge after being chased by wolves, until he encounters a gigantic but also a friendly green dragon, who is appropriately called back to Falkor from Neverending Story. The dragon takes pity for the lost boy and the two instantly form a bond. After a huge, yet delightful, piece of the first act focusing on the dragon (called Elliot) and Pete just playing around, they soon encounter a lumber company led by Karl Urban who wishes to cover more ground in the woods under the disapproval of Bryce Dallas Howard as his park-ranging stepsister. Alongside her is Oona Laurence as her daughter who soon greets Pete and soon makes a connection with the rest of the family. But when Urban grows suspicious of the woods after his confrontation with Pete, he soon develops a different motive for proceeding further in the woods.
Now before you say anything, yes, the story isn't all that new and you probably know where this is going. The lumberman might step into the bad guy role in the pursuit of the dragon. Pete winds up retreading the fish-out-of-water story beats. There's a subtle tension between Pete and Elliot in the beginning of the third act. Heck, there's an old man (played by an otherwise fantastic Robert Redford) who tells a story about the dragon who turns out wasn't crazy after all. However, this movie goes to show that how you approach these clichés is important, and the amount of patience and rawness Lowery approaches these should be given more credit.
From the very first scene to the last, David Lowery proves himself as an unexpected master of rural scene geography and cinematic language. It's big things like the setting and tone, which feels reminiscent of an old Terrence Malick piece. It's small things, like the way it shows certain plot points rather than telling us and the personal dynamics between Pete, Elliot, and the family. And it's the things with individual scenes, like the first act devoting itself to just Pete playing around in the woods with his amazingly rendered dragon friend, and a sequence where Pete interacts with the unfamiliar town in which might be the best version of such moments. The clichés themselves are given more honesty and complete lack of plot contrivances. It all culminates in a piece that largely feels fresh and accessible without being too twee or fluffy.
But the biggest accomplishment of this film truly lies in how it does wonder with its coming-of-age parable. Despite some effective adult development with Redford, Howard and the rest of the family - Urban himself isn't much of a bad guy in this as he is a man who's ambition goes too far - it's all kept just simple enough to let the child perspective to truly sell. Referring back to the Calvin and Hobbes influences, Elliot himself embodies a child's struggle to cope with the loss of friends or family, even as far as resulting Elliot resembling more like a giant dog or teddy bear than an actual dragon. So the whole film structures itself as a trial for young Pete to fully embrace human connection again. In the end, Pete's Dragon implicitly tells the youngsters that it's okay to move on from your loneliness, and it does so without any stupid dance numbers or weirdly dated stereotypes. And believe me, guys, this results in probably one of the most heartbreaking endings I've ever seen in any kids movie.
This perspective almost comes with a weakness during the third act, where some of the characters classify him as an actual freaking dragon while the perspective mutes most of Elliots grand scale. This issue is honestly almost all throughout the movie but only highlights itself more prominently during the end.
That minor issue aside, Pete's Dragon proves worthy of its own place of original works, let alone as a remake. It's the type we get seldom these days, where the remake redefines its own name by having a man with a unique vision builds a whole new creation out of the same blueprint much like David Cronenberg with The Fly or The Coen Brothers with True Grit. Everything from the true nostalgic charm to the rustic geography to Elliot's unique design to the introspective tone works wonders in a movie I've never thought I see in my life. I'm usually bad at spotting a classic, but this might be the one.
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