The original Pete’s Dragon is one of those movies that I know I just absolutely loved when I was a little kid, but for the life of me can’t remember. I honestly can’t recall any detail from that movie other than Mickey Rooney is in it and the dragon in question, Elliott, had a sturdy chin. Oh, but I loved it. It was one of those movies that was on cable a lot in the early 1980s. It’s also one of those movies I’ll most likely never watch again in my life because I’m just fine remembering it as “something I liked.”
I really don’t need to watch it with adult eyes, only to realize it’s bad. Do you really want a movie to ruin your childhood? It’s not the reboots that will do that, it’s going back and realizing a movie you loved is actually bad. “Oh, as a little kid I liked bad movies. Great.” No thank you! This is why I’ll never watch something like The Apple Dumpling Gang, or No Deposit, No Return, or a whole host of movies I liked in the early ‘80s. What’s the point? As far as I’m concerned, everything Don Knotts and Tim Conway starred in was a cinematic classic and I’m fine living the rest of my days thinking that.
So, as I headed into David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon, I had the mixed feelings of both, “I think of the title of this movie in a positive way,” and, “I’m not sure why a remake of this movie needs to exist.”
David Lowery is not the first person I’d think of when I hear the words “Pete’s Dragon remake.” This is a filmmaker who worked on Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color and directed the slow-burning Sundance favorite Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.
So I guess it’s a little surprising that this new Pete’s Dragon isn’t “weird.” Yes, it features indie music from bands like The Lumineers* and it’s bristling with sincerity and earnestness – but it’s certainly not weird. It feels like a movie from a talented director who decided to make the best Pete’s Dragon remake possible, and he did.
(*Which, yeah, is a bit much sometimes and made me worry this was going to be a Garden State telling of Pete’s Dragon. Thankfully Pete’s Dragon never did wind up turning into Dragon State.)
This might seem crazy, but the movie I couldn’t stop thinking of during Pete’s Dragon (once the indie music settled down) was Super 8. Specifically, “Oh, Pete’s Dragon is a better Super 8.” It’s set in the 1980s (and, thankfully, the film does not make a big deal out of this, it was maybe a half hour into the movie before I realized). There are kids involved. There are single parents involved. There are mysterious monsters that no one seems to understand. There are the Spielberg-esque wide-eyed looks of astonishment that J.J. Abrams tried to capture, that Lowrey does better. Who knew David Lowrey could make a better Spielberg movie than J.J. Abrams? (And, if compared to The BFG, better than Spielberg himself, this year.) But the big difference between Super 8 and Pete’s Dragon is Elliott. The alien in Super 8 really didn’t serve much of a purpose other than just being an alien, which caused that movie to falter. In Pete’s Dragon, Elliott drives the story. Elliott is a fully formed character that we find ourselves caring about. (I’m still shocked I wrote those last two sentences.)
Pete’s Dragon opens with young Pete on a road trip with his family. After a horrific car accident, Pete is the only survivor and is rescued and raised by a dragon that’s become local lore to the nearby townsfolk. At least, Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) seems to enjoy spinning a yarn about this dragon. His daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), is a local forest ranger who finds Pete (Oakes Fegley, who helps confirm there are no children under the age of 12 named “John” or “Matt” anymore) living in the woods, six years after the crash. The first 20 minutes or so of Pete’s Dragon has too much of a The Jungle Book vibe – a movie I like a lot, but I just saw that movie – but once Grace takes Pete back to civilization, Pete’s Dragon finds its groove.
Pete’s Dragon is a nice movie. Most of the people in the movie are nice. The closest thing Pete’s Dragon has to an antagonist is Karl Urban’s Gavin, but he’s just kind of a dummy who thinks Elliott is a threat. (And to be fair, if any of us came across a real dragon, we would probably act a little more like Gavin instead of longingly staring into the dragon’s face, assuming it’s our friend.) Regardless, at times Elliott seems so real (and still has a sturdy chin) that when he’s in danger, I felt real emotion. I felt myself getting angry. I did not expect to have this many emotions during Pete’s Dragon, of all movies.
Part of me hopes David Lowery keeps making mainstream children’s movies. I’m sure that’s not his life’s dream, but I also think he’d be doing a service for humanity. Because there’s going to be a whole generation of children growing up with this version of Pete’s Dragon – and I bet when they get older, they will never forget it.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.