Movie Review: ‘Pete’s Dragon’ Soars With Disney Magic

Disney's Pete's Dragon

Movie: Pete’s Dragon (PG, 95 minutes)
Moviegoers: Daddy (47), Jon (6-3/4)
Individual Reviews: Daddy ★★★★★, Jon ★★★★★
Family Favorites: Star Wars (episodes IV-VII), Ghostbusters (all versions), Despicable Me

Plot Snapshot: For years, old wood carver Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) has delighted local children with his tales of the fierce dragon that resides deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. To his daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who works as a forest ranger, these stories are little more than tall tales…until she meets Pete (Oakes Fegley). Pete is a mysterious 10-year-old with no family and no home who claims to live in the woods with a giant, green dragon named Elliott. Grace sets out to determine where Pete came from, where he belongs, and the truth about this dragon.

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[The remainder of this review contains mild spoilers.]

Disney’s new remake of Pete’s Dragon is a truly enchanting experience, and a welcome improvement on the rather dated original. Directed by David Lowery and filmed entirely in New Zealand, the movie is at its most magical when it’s just boy and dragon. Fuzzy, purring Elliott acts as both loyal pet and doting parent to Mowgli-esque Pete. And while I rarely think 3D is justifiable, the flight scenes alone make it well worth the extra cost.

Original vs. Remake: What’s the same?

Pete is still a shaggy-headed orphan (does Disney love their orphans, or what?); the setting still quaint and remote; and a big-hearted heroine still takes Pete into her care. And while CGI Elliott is decidedly better at flight than his animated predecessor, much of his goofy charm remains in the form of botched landings, and a single, chipped fang.

What’s different?

They show Pete getting orphaned. Subtle and exquisitely filmed, the car accident that kills Pete’s parents sets a sad tone that permeates much of the film — though not necessarily to its detriment. In addition, the lighthouse from the original is replaced by a sawmill, along with a gentle, pro-environment subtext.

But most notably missing are the musical numbers. Daniel Hart’s rich, mystical score and a handful of perfectly chosen songs from the worlds of folk and indie music have supplanted the corny character performances. The film includes originals from The Lumineers, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness, as well as songs by St. Vincent and Leonard Cohen. The soundtrack did much to maintain the movie’s otherworldly, yet down-to-earth tone.

But what did my kid think?

Three months shy of 7, my son tumbles and tramples through life with a squad of ninjas, Avengers and dinosaurs. But Pete and Elliott resolutely worked their more soft-handed spell on him, too.

As the credits started to scroll and we stood to leave the theater, my son put his hand on my arm.

“My eyes got watery, and a little bit of tears came out.”

On the drive home we talked about why we both cried — he when Elliott was in danger, me when Pete and Elliott were reunited. The conversation also veered into talk of death, adoption, finding a new family, differentiating between real-life and make-believe, and the importance of seatbelts.

Disney's Pete's Dragon
My 6yo illustrates his (and my) favorite part of the movie — Pete riding Elliott in flight.

At one point in the story, Redford’s character — his older, wiser eyes still sparkling — speaks unironically of how magical it was to meet the mythical beast. From any other film company, it would have come off hokey. Yet once again, Disney sprinkles its brand of magic on moviegoers, and the results are part breathtaking, part heartbreaking, and all wonderful.

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Disclaimer: I received complimentary movie passes to the film. However, all opinions are my son’s and my own. For more info on the film, visit Disney.com/PetesDragon.

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