A Fresh Take On A Beloved Story: Pete’s Dragon

By Douglas Davidson

August 11, 2016

More often than not, when a property from our past is dredged up, the end result does little more than cash-in on that nostalgia. The summer 2016 cinema season certainly has its share of reboots and remakes, but Pete’s Dragon marks the first clear exception. Director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) shoves off the seafaring locale, the songs, and the majority of the original story and successfully modernizes it while staying true to its heart.

Petes Dragon - clture
Courtesy of Disney

The story is familiar to those who’ve seen the original. Forest Ranger Nora (Bryce Dallas Howard) never believed her father’s (Robert Redford) stories about the Dragon of the Pacific Northwest until the day she meets Pete (Oakes Fegley), an orphan boy who claims to have lived in the woods for six years with the help of his friend, Elliot. With the help of her father, her fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley), and Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence), they set out to learn the truth about Pete and Elliot before Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban) can expose them.

1977 vs 2016

Because Pete’s Dragon is a reinterpretation of the 1977 musical, there’s an obvious desire for comparison, so let’s get that out of the way. There’s no lighthouse, no singing, no abusive Gogan family, and no con-man doctor trying to sell pieces of Elliot for riches. By removing these portions, Lowery streamlines the narrative, allows the audience to spend more time with the characters we meet, and enhances the overall theme of family. While Pete remains mostly unchanged, other characters have received some tweaks: Nora, once the feisty lighthouse operator is now a forest ranger and Mickey Rooney’s silly Lampie is replaced by Robert Redford’s grandfatherly Mr. Meacham. Then there’s Elliot – the hand drawn, slightly tubby, goofy-faced design is gone in favor of a CGI-designed, cat-fuzzed, dog-faced creature. His character, however, remains the same: sweet, prone to comedic mishaps, and fiercely loyal to Pete. With the central pieces to the original story intact, albeit reconfigured, fans of the original should feel ready to embrace this generation’s tale.

Courtesy of Disney

Classic Disney At Heart

Fans of the Disney know that all happy endings often come with dark beginnings and Lowery taps into this to set the stage for Pete’s Dragon. Each of the three central families – Pete & Elliot, Nora & Mr. Meacham, and Jack, Natalie, & Gavin – are all missing pieces that have left voids in each of their lives. As such, all of them possess a deep sadness that Lowery doesn’t shy away from. Rather than avoiding death, the dark side of life is treated as parallel theme – similar to Disney classics like Bambi, Dumbo, and The Black Cauldron where loss was a key component.

In making the concept of “family” the central theme of Pete’s Dragon, Lowery is able to tap into the loss that breaks families apart, which adds a great deal of emotional impact when the story reaches its inevitable happy conclusion. Though it would have been simple to focus on the three central characters of Pete, Elliot, and Nora, Lowery expands the narrative to include a new family dynamic whose turmoil converges on Pete and Elliot. The resentment Gavin feels for Jack bubbles over anytime they are on screen together and serves as the catalyst for the third act tension.

Courtesy of Disney

Listen to the Music

Though the actors perform their jobs with relative ease, what cements the emotional impact of each scene is the score. Feeling both oceanic and mountainous, the score invokes nostalgia of the original, while fitting in nicely with the woodland setting. The magical atmosphere is created, in large part, due to the influence of performance artist/violinist, Lindsey Stirling. Though known online for infusing classic refrains with dubstep beats, Lindsey Stirling worked with the composers to develop music that feels mountainous, folky, and mystical – transporting the audience deeper into the tale of a lost boy who just wants to go home.

A Film Worthy of the Name

With the new Pete’s Dragon, Lowery has taken a beloved Walt Disney property, infused it with the ideals of the classic, and made something entirely new. So new, that it can sit on the shelf next to the 1977 original and seem like a whole new movie. Disney movies always have an underlying tone of togetherness, acceptance, family, and love. Pete’s Dragon possesses them all and more.

Star Rating: 4 out of 5.

“Something Wild” by Lindsey Stirling featuring Andrew McMahon In the Wilderness from the Pete’s Dragon Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

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