Pete’s Dragon (PG) ★★★½

Elliott the dragon and Pete (Oakes Fegley) in Pete's Dragon. Photo credit: Disney Enterprises
Elliott the dragon and Pete (Oakes Fegley) in Pete’s Dragon. Photo credit: Disney Enterprises

Yes, it’s true! Dragons and honest-to-goodness family-friendly films still exist.

I love dragons. I was “the mother of dragons” (Game of Thrones’ Daenerys Targaryen) for Halloween, received “Dragonology” books for past birthdays, love the dragon-centric Eragon novel series, have little dragon figurines decorating my workspace, and proudly wore my Bay of Dragons t-shirt and sported a “year of the dragon”-inspired purse to the screening of Pete’s Dragon. And of course I was a fan of the original 1977 film. How many of you actually have Helen Reddy’s “Candle on the Water” from the old soundtrack on your phone right now? I rest my case.

So, as I am with all remakes of movies I loved as a kid, I was trepidatious about Disney’s 2016 version of Pete’s Dragon. Its first few minutes made my heart sink—as we watch a station wagon carrying a five-year-old boy and his parents flip over and crash, leaving the parents dead and the scared little boy alone in the forest, soon to be chased by FREAKING WOLVES—and I was like, “Whhhhhyyyyyyyy??????!!!! Curse you, Disney!” in my head. Rest assured that the parents aren’t actually shown after the crash, but I knew the scene was disturbing enough that I wasn’t going to be able to let my 4.5-year-old son watch it at the theater. (Other kids might not be bothered by that sequence, but I know my little guy would.)

A silent, furry green dragon scares the snarling wolves away and rescues the boy, whose name is Pete (Oakes Fegley). Then the film fast-forwards, and we see that Pete has continued to live in the forest with Elliott (named after a character in Pete’s favorite book) for the last several years.

Aside from the fact that there’s a boy named Pete and a dragon named Elliott in both, the 1977 and new versions of Pete’s Dragon have pretty much nothing else in common, storyline-wise. Truth be told, now that I’m an adult and think about all of the dark overtones in the original, the remake is quite mild by comparison.

This time around, Pete’s curiosity about forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and lumber mill crews led by Jack (Wes Bentley) and Gavin (Karl Urban) leads to both him and Elliott being discovered. Gavin represents “humans that suck” in that he immediately gets his gun and tries to shoot and capture Elliott in the pursuit of fame and fortune. Whereas Grace, who hasn’t actually seen Elliott but still doesn’t discount Pete’s claims thanks to her dragon-legend-believing dad (Robert Redford), just wants both the boy and his supposed mythical beast of a friend to be safe.

Parents should be aware that there are a few other scary scenes—hunters shoot Elliott several times (with tranquilizer darts rather than actual bullets, thankfully… but still), Elliott gets sick and is captured, and then later many of the humans are endangered in several different ways—but I can’t stress enough how sweet and pure and joyful this movie is overall. I honestly thought I would never again see a movie like this. One that’s unapologetic in its total lack of cynicism, sarcasm and effort to be “cool” or “hip” in any way. One where there are characters who are truly good, have no ulterior motives, and don’t engage in any negativity whatsoever. One where a lame kiddie romance isn’t forced, or where an adult romance doesn’t come into play at all. But let’s be honest: the humans aren’t what we’re paying to see, right?

Which brings us to the main attraction. Elliott the dragon: 1) is the best part of an-all around wonderful movie (duh), 2) strengthened my already great love of his kind, and 3) serves as proof that Disney’s amazing CGI work in The Jungle Book was no fluke. (Both films enlisted the help of New Zealand’s Weta Digital, of Lord of the Rings/Gollum fame.) Elliott is responsible for the film’s biggest laughs and cheers—and (happy) tears. He will make a believer out of you.

Director David Lowery (who also co-wrote the screenplay with Toby Halbrooks) deserves a standing ovation. I’m thrilled with and relieved by this remake. See it.


The Bottom-Line? With the exception of a few scary scenes, Pete’s Dragon is the definition of a family-friendly film and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Cast: Pete (Oakes Fegley), Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), Gavin (Karl Urban), Jack (Wes Bentley), Natalie (Oona Laurence), Robert Redford (Mr. Meacham)

Credits: Directed by David Lowery; written by David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks

Studio: Walt Disney Pictures

Run Time: 1 hour 43 minutes

Erika Olson © August 12, 2016