I’m almost afraid to say it out loud, or even in writing, but with Pete’s Dragon joining The Jungle Book and Cinderella, Disney may be giving the lie to the old cliché “They don’t make ’em like that any more.”
Except it’s actually better than that. The latest Disney remakes of titles from their catalogue aren’t just worthy of the originals, they improve on them.
Earlier efforts to refresh Disney brands — Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent — were cynical, subversive critiques of the original stories and their milieus. When Kenneth Branagh played Cinderella straight, it seemed subversive in its non-subversiveness — a better Cinderella story than the 1950 cartoon, as opposed to a broadside on the whole Cinderella mythos. Then came Jon Favreau’s Jungle Book, a richer and more satisfying Mowgli story than the 1967 cartoon.
And Pete’s Dragon?
I am exactly the right age to have been charmed by the original Pete’s Dragon when it opened in 1977, and to have revisited it any number of times on the small screen afterwards. My siblings and I loved Pete’s Dragon.
Looking back, I suspect this is a reflection of our relatively limited horizons in a world before the likes of Pixar and Ghibli, not to mention Blu-ray and streaming services. Certainly my own kids were brutal in their assessment when we watched the 1977 film a year or two ago, and I can’t argue with a word they said against it.
The terrifying, abusive hillbilly family that literally enslaves the young protagonist; Mickey Rooney’s perpetual comic drunkenness; the villain gleefully singing about slicing and dicing the titular dragon — what were people thinking in the 1970s? I’m all for not soft-pedaling with kids, but Pete’s Dragon, with its chipper musical milieu, doesn’t seem to realize how nightmarish it really is. Most of the songs are terrible too. (“Brazzle Dazzle Day”? What were they thinking?)
None of these issues are found in the new Pete’s Dragon, the first entry in the new series to jettison most of its source material, wisely so. (It’s also the first without a classic literary source.)
Pete’s Dragon has its own tone. Cinderella was a burnished princess fairytale, The Jungle Book a rollicking boy’s adventure, part Kipling, part Raiders of the Lost Ark. Pete’s Dragon is a soulful story of tragedy and friendship, at times evoking E.T. or The Iron Giant, more about mood and emotion than plot or action.
There’s no traditional movie villain; the Gogans are gone, replaced by no comparable threat. Some of the threat to the dragon Elliot posed by Jim Dale’s medicine-show quack remains, but the character here is more unscrupulous and venal than villainous per se.
Beyond that, pretty much all the two films have in common are an orphaned boy cared for by an intelligent but inarticulate dragon that can turn invisible and a woman who takes an interest in the boy’s welfare.
The New England fishing village setting and its lighthouse are gone, replaced by the forested landscape of the Pacific Northwest circa the 1980s, where Grace Meacham, played by Bryce Dallas Howard, works as a forest ranger.
Howard was last seen in Jurassic World, another movie featuring a giant reptilian creature with stealth-mode powers hiding in the forest. The Village, too, was about an elusive, unseeable monster in the woods; in Lady in the Water, a monster with camouflage powers can actually hide on the lawn. Howard’s next film, Gold, is set in the jungles of Borneo. Even if the plot doesn’t posit an invisible monster lurking about, that doesn’t mean there isn’t one.
Making that very point, Grace’s twinkle-eyed father (Robert Redford) tells her, “Just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.”
“And just because you say it’s true doesn’t mean it is,” Grace counters.
Grace “knows a thing or two,” her dad observes, “but only if it’s staring her in the face. If you go through life only looking at what’s right in front of you, you miss out on a whole lot.” It almost sounds like there’s a larger theme, doesn’t it?
Writer-director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) and co-writer Toby Halbrook imbue Pete’s Dragon with an awareness of wonder. Grace’s father, who claims to have seen the legendary “Millhaven dragon,” tells tall tales about the encounter, but behind the imagination is a real experience of what the old man calls “magic.”
“It changes the way I see the world,” he tells her. “The trees, the sunshine. You.”
I’m reminded of Tolkien’s account in “On Fairy Stories” of how mythic images enchant the world, or reveal its own magic:
By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and the Moon, root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory. … It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine.
I can’t recall another live-action Disney film that opens with the loss of the orphaned hero’s parents: a trauma handled about as gracefully as possible, with a haunting slow-motion shot evoking not so much what happened as how such moments are reflected in the dim mirror of childhood memory.
The next surprise is that the filmmakers don’t reveal the dragon slowly, a de rigueur strategy at least since Jaws. Even the original Pete’s Dragon keeps Elliot invisible through the whole opening scene, revealing him about 10 minutes into the film.
Here we see him pretty much right away: an unexpectedly furry green behemoth with both feline and canine affinities. Even in the 1977 film Elliot had a fluffy thatch of pink hair — and, as nurturing as he is, it makes some sense that he would be more mammalian than traditional Western dragons.
He’s certainly cuddlier this way. Than a realistically computer-rendered reptilian dragon would be, I mean; of course with hand-drawn animation you can do whatever you want. Alas, the remake is as incurious about Elliot’s diet as the original; we see deer and other animals in the forest, and Pete even catches a rabbit at one point, but there’s no circle-of-life theme here about predation.
Pete is 5 years old in the prologue, and when we catch up with him again, six years have elapsed. The film takes seriously the implications of Pete (Oakes Fegley) spending those six years without human contact: If he’s not quite an enfant sauvage, he’s at least half-feral, a child of the forest.
Fortunately he still speaks English, and Elliot seems to understand him at least as well as a dog — a movie dog, anyway. (Elliot’s own vocalizations are as limited as in the original; thankfully, the remake dispenses with the odd conceit that Pete, like a far more celebrated loner with a fanciful non-human companion in a 1977 film, can somehow construe complex thoughts from a limited range of grunts.)
Still, his reintroduction to civilization is persuasively disorienting. Aiding the transition is young Natalie (Oona Laurence), the daughter of Grace’s fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley), who owns a lumber mill. In fact, it’s a glimpse of Natalie that lures Pete out of hiding and leads to his assimilation back into society. (It’s almost like the makers of Pete’s Dragon are making up for the absence of this device at the end of Favreau’s The Jungle Book.)
“Is Elliot your imaginary friend?” Natalie asks. Of course Pete doesn’t know what “imaginary” means, and Natalie’s explanation doesn’t seem to help.
Are imaginary friends funny? Can they fly? Perhaps Elliot is imaginary. Then Pete asks, “Are you my imaginary friend too?” When Natalie protests in surprise that she’s “real,” Pete thinks a moment. “So’s Elliot,” he nods. Parents who settle for The Secret Life of Pets over thoughtful material like this are what’s wrong with the world.
There’s a half-developed environmentalist theme about reckless deforestation, though the culpable party is not the lumber mill owner Jack, but his unprincipled brother Gavin (Karl Urban). Gavin is also a hunter who might not quite know what he would do with a dragon if he caught one, but definitely wouldn’t let that stop him.
The heart of the film, though, is the emotions and the relationships, especially Pete’s relationships with Elliot, with Grace, and with Natalie. It’s a rare family film that takes its time and allows the characters to breathe, to romp in the forest, to gaze at stars.
It feels like a throwback, like a film that almost could have existed in the 1970s, if the Disney magic hadn’t been at such a low ebb. I wish I’d grown up watching this film instead of the original.
Caveat Spectator: A discreetly handled but fatal car crash (we really only see the wrecked car afterwards); some action violence and menace. Could possibly be a bit much for very sensitive youngsters.