Throwing it back to the 1980’s for some reason, we begin with the beautiful, lush Pacific Northwest and a loving couple that gets killed in a car accident. Now, there’s a nice beginning, huh? Their 5-year-old son, Pete, survives and encounters a gigantic creature in the forest that protects him. He names him Elliot, after his favorite childrens book, and they connect on a deep emotional level. The creature? It’s a green, fluffy-ish dragon that looks like Falcor from The NeverEnding Story and acts likes a great big puppy dog. Elliot also can disappear, fly, and link to you telepathically if you touch him.
Fast-forward six years and Pete’s (Oakes Fegley) small, peaceful world is rocked when nasty loggers begin cutting into his forest home. He’s discovered by 11-year-old Natalie Meacham (Oona Laurence), her logging dad, Jack (Wes Bentley) and his wife, motherly forest ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard). Hurt and taken to a hospital, Pete is introduced to the ‘real world’ while Elliot is hunted down by crazed logger, Gavin (Karl Urban) and his men, who think they saw a dragon in the forest. Peanut butter sandwiches, record players, and a real bed await Pete at Grace’s home as Elliot flies around town in a desperate attempt to find his BFF.
Trusting his new ‘family’, Pete shows Grace, Natalie, and Grace’s dad (Robert Redford), his secret hiding place deep in the woods. BUT! Gavin shows up with his cronies and capture poor Elliot, tranquilizing him, and get him ready to show to the world. Naturally, the kids rush in and, with help from Grace’s dad, spring Elliot from his incarceration. However, the third act chase scene is right around the corner and that’s where the film finally picks up momentum, albeit late in the game, to it’s bittersweet conclusion.
Although based on Malcolm Marmorstein’s 1977 screenplay, this updated version by director David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks (both who did the dramatic Ain’t Them Bodies Saints), offers not the usual Disney-fare of a cutsie ‘boy and his dragon’ tale, but a semi-dramatic and often heart-breaking tale of abandonment, trust issues, and family turmoil. Yeah, just what you want in a kids film, right? Oh sure, director Lowery gives you some humor smattered here and there to remind you that you’re watching a movie about a magical dragon and a little boy, but mostly it’s a wrenching story that’s is right up there with those Lifetime movies you’ve seen on The Hallmark Channel, minus all the fun, charm, magic, and sheer lunacy that was present in the original 1977 film… and that movie was terrible!
Acting-wise, you have pure gold in Oakes Fegley as Pete, who acts the hell out his role with great compassion and no Disney-cutsie whatsoever. The kid’s incredible as is his counter-part, Oona Laurence as Natalie, who recently nailed her role in Bad Moms. Urban is great, as is Howard, who can turn on the motherly charm with just a glance. Redford lends his decades of credibility to his part, but let’s not forget the terrific CGI Elliot, who looks wonderful. It’s just a little odd that in a kids movie like this, the ending had the audience in tears and sniffles instead of laughter and smiles. Bring tissues, people!
Trivia: When Disney finally decided to enter the VHS home video market in 1980, Pete’s Dragon was the first movie released to the public to buy. Oh, and the lighthouse you see in the movie? That was hand-builton Point Buchon Trail in Los Osos, CA and stood there for decades as a tourist attractions until it deteriorated from neglect. It was originally intended to be part of a Disneyland park attraction!