“Magic” is a word tossed about quite often in Disney’s remake of Pete’s Dragon, and here is the rare instance where that particular superlative actually applies. Not the standard, twinkling “Disney Magic,” as it’s been branded for mass consumption, but something smaller, more organic, a warm glow rather than bright bombast. There’s an aura surrounding this film that envelopes the audience in a quaintly elegiac embrace that isn’t manufactured, but conjured. So “magic” is, in fact, the most appropriate descriptor.
Directed by David Lowery, this version of Pete’s Dragon feels at once literary and cinematic. It speaks the words of literature but moves in the rhythms of film. And though the basic concept dates back to an unpublished short story by S.S. Field and Seton Miller, and it’s most immediate inspiration is the brash 1977 Disney musical, this film’s aura is a creation so unique unto itself that it feels like an imaginative original work. In a fusing of fairy- and folk-tale elements, with the latter far outweighing the former, Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks craft a story that feels as lived in as a pair of old boots on a dusty wood-planked floor and overlay it with strokes of soaring magic realism. The fusion is unpretentious yet entirely sophisticated.
The story’s impetus is decidedly melancholy compared with the pomp of the original: in the opening sequence, Pete (Oakes Fegley) loses his parents in a tragic car crash and wanders into the nearby woods. There he’s discovered and essentially raised by a gentle dragon, whom Pete dubs “Elliot,” after the title character of his favorite storybook. The early scenes, with a feral Pete frolicking through the wilderness, bear an ever-so-slight resemblance to Disney’s other tentpole remake, The Jungle Book, though Pete’s Dragon manages to avoid the one-to-one sameness and overt Disney commodification, existing as its own lyrical story, a seemingly remarkable feat that must be attributed to Lowery’s assurance as a filmmaker.
Believe it or not, this is a work of auteurism for Lowery, who chose to follow his 2013 Sundance sensation Ain’t Them Bodies Saints with this adaptation of one of the more mediocre entries in the Disney vault. Saints was a straightforward crime-and-romance narrative spun through a lilting stylistic lens, and here now Pete’s Dragon is a sneaking kindred work, about good people in extraordinary circumstances. After six years of living off the grid, Pete is discovered by forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who attempts to unravel the mystery of his existence while welcoming him into her cozy family unit: fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley), stepdaughter Natalie (Oona Laurence), and her woodcarver father (Robert Redford), whose tall tales of youthful dragon encounters are suddenly proven truer than anyone ever realized.
There isn’t much in the way of internal conflict – these are inherently decent folks who discover a boy in the woods, and eventually his faithful dragon comes looking for him. Lowery is more interested in awe than shock, respecting the majesty of Elliot – a spectacular visual creation mounted with such painstaking detail that he feels like a performer alongside the rest of the cast. One convention the film does adopt is the scenery-chewing villain, in the form of Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban), whose inherent fear leads him to incite panic in the sleepy Pacific Northwest town and lead a hunt to conquer poor Elliot. Lowery uses the folktale framework to explore humankind’s ever-present fear of “other” in its many forms, from demonizing to dominating to defeating, but it never feels pointed or preachy. It is just one of many patterns in the film’s meditative fabric.
Through its folksy cadence, amid its gorgeous canvass of mist and fog, Pete’s Dragon is a film of wonder…and, yes, of magic.