“Pete’s Dragon” Is Disney's Surprise Gem Of The Summer

By Scott Kurland
Film: Pete’s Dragon
Starring: Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Wes Bentley, Oona Laurence, and Karl Urban
Rated PG
Director: David Lowery

One of the most pleasant surprises of the last few years has been Disney's decision to remake their classic films. This success is mainly due to Disney's choice in directors. They wanted to make a Shakespearean “Cinderella” so they got the Kenneth Branagh, the king of all things Shakespeare. When the house of mouse needed an updated “Jungle Book” that screamed fantasy-adventure, they got Jon Favreau, the original Marvel man. And as we all know, “Beauty & The Beast” is being remade next year by Bill Condon, a master of musical cinema. That brings us to this week’s film “Pete’s Dragon,” a modern update of the 1977 folk live-action/animation hybrid. The original film was nothing special. It was part of the post-Walt-era of Disney. Let’s see if this updated “Pete’s Dragon” is better than it’s predecessor shall we?

“Pete’s Dragon” is the story of Pete (Oakes Fegley), a ten year old orphan who has lived in the woods for six years. After Pete is discovered by a kind-hearted forest ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), we discover the true key to Pete’s survival. Pete has a pet dragon named Elliot who will stop at nothing to protect the boy he loves. Problems arise however, when Gavin (Karl Urban) decides to go dragon hunting and claim Elliot for himself. Now, Pete and Grace must do whatever it takes to protect Elliot, a task which requires the help of Grace’s father (Robert Redford), her fiancee Jack (Wes Bentley), and Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). Will they save Elliot? Or will the town's newest attraction be a real life Dragon?

 Bravo Disney. You cracked the code. You took a mediocre film from the 70’s and turned it into a truly stellar remake. You brought in an Independent filmmaker, director David Lowery, the man responsible for the Sundance-winning film “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.” Lowery brings that same rustic storytelling to “Pete’s Dragon”. His script and vision is fully realized on screen. From the opening score to the late 70’s early 80’s setting, this film works on so many levels. Disney has been able to do what DC/Warner Brothers can't. Their comic properties are grounded in the fantastic, their animation is heartfelt, and their live-action does not come across as fake or forced. Granted, the live action involves a giant Dragon that lives in the woods but even he is more complex than some of the most recent characters I've seen portrayed on screen.

“Pete’s Dragon” is one of the most pleasant surprises of this lackluster summer. For starters, the CGI for Elliot is incredible. This is “Jungle Book” level quality work. The integration is seamless and the fur is so realistic you can touch it. Disney is going back to its former glory with films like “Pete’s Dragon”. Just because it’s a remake doesn’t mean it’s bad. On the contrary, it helps make the film better. It fixes all the cartoonish absurdity that the original left on the world. 

The strongest thing about “Pete’s Dragon” is the story, but a close second is the performances from the cast. Young Oakes Fegley as Pete is a find. He’s been an up-and-comer for years with roles on “Person of Interest” and “Boardwalk Empire.” As Pete he shines. He’s adventurous and, most importantly, he’s believable. His childlike innocence paves the way for great chemistry with Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford. If you were to tell me that Mickey Rooney and Robert Redford would play the same role, I’d say you were crazy. Redford and Howard really add heart to this film. Redford represents optimism and naivety; while Howard is the grounded dose of reality that drives the plot.

A few weeks ago, I reviewed Karl Urban in “Star Trek Beyond” and raved about that performance. Urban does it again here, but this time as the villain. Urban has this knack for playing the flawed everyman. He's not a bad person, he's just lost. Urban has moments when his character has genuine heart, but it’s overshadowed by his own greed. The second best thing about this film is Wes Bentley. For years Bentley has struggled to be a leading man, but in the last few years, he’s found his way back in.  Bentley really helps bring the indie roots to “Pete’s Dragon”.

“Pete’s Dragon” is a wonderful family film that can bring joy to everyone, young and old. This is a must-see-film full of heart that really knows how to bring the feels in heavy doses. Do yourself a favor and see this film. A note, I saw this  film in 3D and it didn’t add much to my viewing experience. So when you see “Pete’s Dragon” see it in regular 2D. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you see “Pete’s Dragon.” Just see it in theaters because this is one of the best films of the summer.

scott kurlandComment