PETE’S DRAGON Movie Review – Pure Magic, One of Year’s Best Films

Every once in a while a film comes along that surprises us in a way that we could have never imagined. Walking into a screening of the Disney reboot of their 1977 film PETE’S DRAGON, I really didn’t know what to expect.  Aware it was more of a reimagining than a remake, I hoped for something that was at the very least, good.  Let’s face it, the original, although enjoyable, is not one of Disney’s most memorable movies and seemed a strange choice for a reboot.  What Disney delivers though is so much more than I could have ever hoped for.  Reminiscent of a time when family films invoked a true sense of wonder, allowing both kids and parents to escape into a world they would most likely want to return to over and over again, PETE’S DRAGON earns its place alongside such great films as BABE and E.T.  It’s a surprising addition to the summer lineup and stands out as a character driven adventure that gives its audience a truly magical time at the movies.  This is the definite “must see” film of the summer.

Continue reading for our full PETE’S DRAGON movie review.

Right from the opening moments moviegoers know they are in for something special.  The film begins with a young Pete and his parents traveling down a small road in the deep woods when a deer scampers into their path, causing their car to fly off the road and flip over.  The youngster, who is the only survivor, now finds himself alone. As he wanders away from the accident and deeper into the forest, he eventually meets the large green dragon.  The two characters bond in an incredibly moving scene that immediately captures your heart as it sets up the emotional tone for the story to follow.  The film jumps ahead six years, with Pete still living in the woods with the dragon he’s decided to name Elliot.  They’ve built a sturdy home inside the trunk of a large tree, and spend their days living as only two best friends could.  One day a young girl named Natalie and her soon to be stepmom Grace, a no-nonsense and levelheaded Forest Ranger, discover Pete and decide to take him home so that they can find out who he is and why he is living in the forest.  Meanwhile, the lumberjack brother of Grace’s fiancé has an encounter with Elliot and sets out to capture the creature in hopes of using him to make a fortune.

PETE'S DRAGON

A re-imagining of Disney’s cherished film, PETE’S DRAGON is the story of a boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his best friend Elliot © 2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

With only a few nods to the original 1977 film, co-writer Toby Halbrooks and co-writer/director David Lowery have decided to give audiences a completely new story with a very different tone (no musical numbers in this version).  At first, it seems Lowrey was an odd choice to helm this film.  Coming from the indie world where his last movie was the low-budget AIN’T THEM BODIES SAINTS, his independent roots turn out to be just what the film needed.  Lowery created a well-crafted and thought-out piece of entertainment.  He never insults the audience by placing action or visual effects where they don’t belong.  Along with Halbrooks, they stay true to the real story – a simple tale that examines the true meaning of family and our need to always protect those whom we truly love.  The filmmakers show an amazing understanding of emotion as the characters earn every emotional beat.  A story idea that could have very easily come off as corny and oversentimental is given the right amount of respect needed to allow the film to prove itself worthy of capturing our hearts.

PETE'S DRAGON

Director David Lowery and Robert Redford on the set of Disney’s PETE’S DRAGON, photo by Matt Klitscher © 2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

Shooting on location in New Zealand, cinematographer Bojan Bazelli takes full advantage of the natural beauty the landscapes provide, creating an old fashioned feel that adds to the magic.  Working well with production designer Jade Healy, the film both looks and feels as if it came straight out of a children’s book, allowing audiences to enter into a more innocent time and place unseen in most movies today.

PETE'S DRAGON

A re-imagining of Disney’s cherished film, PETE’S DRAGON is the story of a boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his best friend Elliot © 2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

The main reason the movie works as well as it does emotionally comes from the strong performances given by the entire cast, and I’m not only talking about the human actors.  The special effects artists created an amazing dragon character in Elliot.  He is not only a technical achievement that looks amazing, but is also given just the right amount of personality to make him feel like a real living being. Mixed with dog-like grunts that are Elliot’s voice, we are given a fully realized character who is organic to the world that has been created, making us believe that this big, loveable dragon is not only real, but also maybe, just maybe, if we wish hard enough, we may one day discover that creatures like this actually exist in the real world.

PETE'S DRAGON

A re-imagining of Disney’s cherished film, PETE’S DRAGON is the story of a boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) and his best friend Elliot © 2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

PETE'S DRAGON

Bryce Dallas Howard is Grace and Robert Redford is Mr. Meacham, photo by Matt Klitscher © 2015 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

Both Robert Redford and Bryce Dallas Howard are great in their roles as the two adults who come into Pete’s life.  Both are nods to the original story, but get handled in a completely different manner.  Howard effectively plays Grace with a wonderful motherly charm that endears us to her as she grows to care for our young hero.  Meanwhile, Redford plays Grace’s father, Meacham, a man who believes he once saw the legendary Millhaven Dragon and revels in telling stories about his encounter to the neighboring kids. When creating a character who obviously believes he’s seen something most people feel is just a tall tale, some filmmakers would have gone for the humorous portrayal by making him a little crazy or maybe even a drunk (similar to his counterpart, Lampie, from the original film).  Fortunately, Redford is allowed the freedom to give the character a more respectful portrayal, playing him as a charming older man whose sanity we never doubt and whose kindness towards the kids of the town makes us love him even more.

PETE'S DRAGON

Robert Redford is Mr. Meacham in PETE’S DRAGON, photo by Matt Klitscher © 2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

But even with all that the film has going for it, it’s the child performers who really shine.  Young Oakes Fegley is wonderful as Pete and may be the main reason the film has so much heart without ever feeling fake.  A young actor who hadn’t done much before cast as Pete, he is one of those child performers that just seems like a natural born actor.  His performance is endearing as he plays a lost feral boy who doesn’t know what to make of the world he is brought into when found.  His relationship with Elliot is fantastic as Fegley performs a wide array of emotions in such a natural way that it allows the audience to not only believe in the relationship between a boy and his dragon, but also want to invest their time in it. The first moments we get with Fegley’s Pete as he runs through the woods with Elliot are emotional, entertaining and magical.  Fegley handles all the emotions in such an honest manner that Pete’s love for Elliot feels completely genuine and the film is much better off because of it.

PETE'S DRAGON

Oakes Fegley is Pete and Oona Laurence is Natalie, photo by Matt Klitscher © 2015 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

Pete’s friendship with Elliot isn’t the only thing that brings some real heart into the film though.  As he starts to feel more comfortable with his newfound family, Fegley plays Pete’s feelings towards the other human characters in a perfectly understated way.  It’s his relationship with the young Natalie that works best though and this bond is made even stronger by the amazing performance given by the other young actor in the film, Oona Laurence.  She gives Natalie, Grace’s soon to be stepdaughter, an innocent quality which only adds to the caring nature of her character.

PETE'S DRAGON

Bryce Dallas Howard is Grace, Wes Bentley is Jack Oakes Fegley is Pete and Oona Laurence is Natalie in Disney’s PETE’S DRAGON, photo by Matt Klitscher © 2016 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

PETE’S DRAGON is a movie that is going to surprise a lot of people.  The creative team over at Disney deliver a sincere, old-fashioned fantasy for the entire family.  Filled with the right amount of adventure, drama, magic and wonder, the filmmakers refused to settle for second best and instead, not only have they made one of the best family film’s to hit theaters so far this year, but also one of the best overall films of 2016 period.

PETE'S DRAGON

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About Mark Oguschewitz

Mark Oguschewitz moved to Los Angeles, California after graduating with a film degree from Columbia College in Chicago, Ill. Pursuing a career in the industry, Mark became an award winning freelance editor. He is also known for being the creative consultant for the podcast "Skywalking through Neverland" and co-host of the Podcast "Talking Apes TV." Mark's short film "Gourmet" took the Best Micro-Short honor at the International Horror and Sci-Fi film festival in 2007. His spare time is all about movies. It's not just entertainment, but has become more of a real passion, as he tries to see everything he can. Art house or Blockbuster – It doesn't matter, he loves them all.