Pete’s Dragon

Disney tries something different; a delightful surprise

The latest Disney remake of one of its older animated films (the original Pete’s Dragon was made in 1977) is an improbable choice, because the animated film wasn’t very good, and translating this story to live action would appear to be challenging. Nevertheless, relative newcomer David Lowery was given the task of writing and directing a live-action version of Pete’s Dragon, with surprising results.

Pete’s Dragon stars Oakes Fegley as the young five-year-old Pete, whose parents are killed in a car accident, leaving him alone in the woods. Pete ends up staying in the woods for six years, surviving only because he has found a companion named Elliot, who happens to be a giant furry dragon. All is well until Pete is discovered by a well-meaning police officer (Grace, played by Bryce Dallas Howard), who has a young daughter of her own (Natalie, played by Oona Laurence) as well as a father (Robert Redford) who claims to have seen a dragon in the woods. Can Pete and Elliot survive their encounter with the real world?

I was so moved by watching Pete’s Dragon that I carried on a long conversation (read: argument) with myself afterwards. I thought I’d offer a different kind of review by sharing that conversation with you:

Vic 1: Wow!

Vic 2: What’s that? You’re giving one of your few “Wows!” of the year to some mediocre Disney film about a boy and a CGI dragon? Are you kidding me?

Vic 1: Hey, I’m as surprised as you are. I didn’t even have any interest in seeing Petes Dragon. I mean, the animated version was a dud, so why bother making a live-action version, right? But my daughter wanted to see it, so . . .

Vic 2: Yeah, okay, I understand why you went, but that doesn’t explain the wow. Come on, a super-sweet kids’ film about a lost boy who spends six years in the forest with a dragon before he gets noticed, and then of course there’s a baddie who wants to capture and exploit the dragon? What we have here is a simple unoriginal story with an overbearing score and a furry dragon. A wow? Seriously?

Vic 1: I hear you. Even with the excellent child acting, I was thinking, “Why did I waste my time on this? It doesn’t even resemble any Disney film I’ve seen in forever (not even its predecessor): this is a slow, poetic film with hardly any action and no redemptive violence at all, and—wait a minute.

Vic 2: So what happened?

Vic 1: It dawned on me that I was witnessing a wondrous event, because Petes Dragon really is unlike any Disney film I have seen in forever—a slow poetic film with hardly any action and no redemptive violence! Not only that, it has a scene in the middle (with Redford and Howard) that just pulled the ground from under my feet and is now my favorite scene of the year. After that scene I couldn’t stop crying, and neither could my daughter. I can’t even remember the last time I watched a film with an emotional punch like this. Unfathomable.

Vic 2: Hmm. Sounds as if you were the victim of some serious sentimental manipulation. Remember, this is Disney. Think of all the damage Disney has done to impressionable young minds.

Vic 1: I know very well the kind of influence Disney can exert on impressionable young minds. And I agree that something smells fishy when Disney makes a film that doesn’t appear to be fueled by corporate greed, a film that feels even older than its 1970s setting and almost seems to dare viewers to come to the cinema to watch something completely different. But maybe it’s a sign of hope; I mean, Disney is still making some great films. Remember Inside Out?

Vic 2: Yeah, but look at the megabucks they’re raking in; it’s all about the money, as it always has been. Disney just gives people what they think they want.

Vic 1: And yet, even though Petes Dragon is doing surprisingly well at the box office, it’s not going to come close to the success of The Jungle Book, which was a decent film but nowhere near as good as PeteDragon. Disney must have known this would never be a huge hit, but they took a chance anyway; it should be applauded for that.

Vic 2: Somebody in the office must have been sleeping. Who is this David Lowery fellow anyway?

Vic 1: Never heard of him, but maybe he slipped through some crack in the Disney machine. Or maybe Disney is able to think beyond the almighty dollar once in a while.

Vic 2: I’ll need more evidence before admitting that. And you still haven’t really explained the wow

Vic 1: Bottom line: Petes Dragon is pure magic. It’s about seeing the world through eyes of innocent wonder instead of through eyes focused on resource extraction; indeed, it’s about discovering that there’s much more out there than we can even see with our eyes. It’s about love, friendship, family, and the environment, and did I mention there’s hardly any action and that (small spoiler alert) the film’s baddie (played by Karl Urban) is—wait for it— redeemed at the end?

Vic 2: No way! Not in a Disney film! You must have missed something.

 Vic 1: I couldn’t believe it either. I’m telling you, this is the kind of family film Hollywood hasn’t made in decades, and the relief is a little overwhelming. I’m almost in shock, and thus the wow.

Take your kids and take yourselves to the surprise film of the decade (I recommend the 2-D version).


Pete’s Dragon is rated PG for action, peril, and brief language.