Pete’s Dragon (2016) ☆☆☆(3/4): A boy and his big, furry green friend

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“Pete’s Dragon”, the remake of the 1977 Disney film of the same name, is admirable for many reasons. It takes its time to establish fantasy elements inside its ordinary background, and its simple but thoughtful fairy tale comes to grow on us under its gentle, relaxed mood. While equipped with the unadulterated sincerity reminiscent of “E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial” (1982), the movie is also immersed in awe-inspiring mythic quality as looking around its vast forest landscapes, and the overall result soothed and delighted me with wondrous visual moments I am willing to revisit someday for appreciating more of the efforts put into the film.

The early scenes in the movie are about how a young boy named Pete (Levi Alexander) comes to encounter his unlikely friend in some remote forest area. When he and his parents are going to somewhere by their car, an accident suddenly happens on the road, and Pete is left alone by himself while his parents are dead as a result. Not long after wandering into the forest, he comes across a grave danger, but then he is fortunately saved by a big, furry green dragon living in the forest.

Pete names the dragon Elliot, which comes from his favorite children book. Many of you will probably be reminded that Elliot is also the name of the young hero in “E.T. – the Extra-Terrestrial”, and Pete’s first response to his dragon friend is not that far from the innocent fear and curiosity shown from the early key scenes of that great film. While understandably intimidated at first, he sincerely approaches to Elliot, and Elliot, whose puppyish features remind me of that fluffy dragon in “The NeverEnding Story” (1984), softly responds with his gentle sound and docile yellow eyes.

Six years later, Pete, now played by Oakes Fegley, looks a lot like Mowgli’s American cousin besides growing up a lot. He and Elliot have lots of fun together in the forest, and we see him enjoying his flight high above the forest thanks to Elliot, who also can make himself invisible at any moment. They live together in a cavern under a big old tree, and Pete feels safe and protected during night as being surrounded by his friend’s soft green fur.

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However, their peaceful forest life is disrupted when their area is invaded by a bunch of workers from a nearby lumber mill owned by Jack (Wes Bentley), and Pete finds himself brought back into his former world shortly after his accidental encounter with Jack’s young daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence, who is as plucky as she was in “Southpaw” (2015)). As Elliot tries to bring back Pete, he happens to draw the attention of Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban), who becomes determined to catch Elliot after his rather unpleasant first encounter with Elliot.

Instead of having the plot merely driven by this conflict situation, the director David Lowery, who wrote the screenplay with Toby Halbrooks, focuses more on mood and characters while maintaining the leisurely narrative pace of his movie. While Pete temporarily stays at Jack’s house, Natalie and Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), Jack’s girlfriend who works as a forest ranger, gradually come closer to him, and there is a warm, tender domestic scene where we see a certain possibility being developed among Jack and others who genuinely care about him.

Grace initially believes that Elliot is just Pete’s imaginary friend, but it does not take much time for her to realize that dragon really exists as her old father has told her and others for years. Robert Redford, who looks a bit shabbier than usual, effortlessly holds our attention as his character recollects one unforgettable experience he still vividly remembers, and Lowery wisely stays on Redford’s performance rather than inserting flashback shots. When Grace’s father describes how magical that moment of his was, we have no doubt about that, as watching Redford’s wrinkled face enlivened on the screen.

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Even while they are separated from each other, the strong relationship between Pete and Elliot remains to be the heart of the film, and Lowery and his crew did a superb job of creating a believable CGI creature to interest and engage us. While he has occasional small moments of lightweight humor, Elliot is also an active part of the drama in the movie just like Pete and other substantial human characters, and there is a sublime moment when Elliot silently watches Pete from his hidden position. Elliot’s wordless gestures convey to us a lot about how he feels about what he has just glimpsed, that makes this moment quietly poignant in the end.

Compared to Lowery’s previous work “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” (2013), “Pete’s Dragon” looks more mainstream with its considerably bigger budget, but he does not forget the importance of good story and character. Although the movie becomes a bit more action-oriented during its third act, it still stays with what has been established up to that point, and that is the main reason why the climax sequence works on the emotional level. The cinematographer Bojan Bazelli did a stellar job of establishing the mysterious and enchanting atmosphere in those beautiful forest scenes in the film, and the composer Daniel Hart’s folkish score is effectively used along with several nice songs on the soundtrack. Besides looking convincing with his CGI co-star, Fegley gives a likable lead performance, and it surely helps that he is surrounded by a group of reliable veteran performers besides Redford.

After the disappointing summer blockbuster season of this year which is filled with lots of noises and explosions which did not leave much impression on us, “Pete’s Dragon” feels refreshing in comparison for its distinctive style and personality which will leave lasting impressions on you. Because I have not watched the 1977 version yet, I cannot tell you whether the remake version is better or not, but this is surely as satisfying as “The Jungle Book” (2016), another recent successful remake done by Walt Disney Studios. I must say that I am usually skeptical about remakes, but, seriously, I will not complain as long as they can be as good as these two exemplary examples.

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