‘Pete’s Dragon’ Review: A breathtakingly magical journey with a heart the size of a dragon

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Pete’s Dragon is the modern day retelling of the cheesy yet lovable 1977 Disney cult classic. This updated adaptation follows a boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) who after a horrible accident is left alone in the woods to survive on his own. Pete befriends a dragon that he names Elliot and the two share an unbreakable bond of friendship. Six years later, a forest ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) takes a stroll through the woods after hearing her father tell a story about the Millhaven dragon that lives in the woods. Pete spots Grace from afar and is fascinated seeing another human being in the woods. Problems soon arise when Grace’s soon-to-be brother-in-law Gavin (Karl Urban) visits the woods and discovers that the legend of the Millhaven dragon is real. 

Pete’s Dragon is a magical timeless adventure that made me feel like kid all over again. It is extremely rare for a film to instantly hook me but this one did it. I really connected with the character of Pete and loved the relationship between him and his dragon Elliot. Their emotional relationship begins in their very first scene together and the bond the two share only gets stronger as the story progresses. For the first 30 minutes, there are multiple scenes between Pete and Elliot that contain little to no dialogue yet a real connection between these characters and audience is created. Simple scenes like the two reading a book, running through the woods, or laying next to one another are pure Disney magic at its finest.

It was nice to see that Lowery and Toby Halbrooks‘ script took its time building the relationships between the characters instead of rushing it early on. Howard was a great choice to play Grace and she proved to be a very likable early on. I think the scenes that showcased her relationship with Pete as well as her father played by Robert Redford really stood out. Speaking of Redford, it was nice seeing him on the big screen again. He doesn’t have a ton of screen-time but definitely serves as one of the key roles in the story and how it plays out.

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I’m so glad that Oona Laurence got the role of Natalie. I loved her in this film and felt like she did such a great job interacting with everyone especially Pete. I remember seeing Laurence in the film, Lamb back in 2015. I spent most of time watching Lamb thinking about whether or not Laurence was going to star in other films and sure enough here she is. Lastly, I adored Oakes Fegley as Pete. I think he really owns this film and every scene he is in. Fegley outshines most of the cast outside of Elliot. The moments between him and Elliot contain this raw emotion that makes the viewer feel as if they are watching a father and son but oddly enough its a dragon and a little boy. I also have to point out that Fegley’s emotionally driven performance and the look reminded me a lot of Jacob Tremblay from 2015’s Room

Disney made an incredibly wise choice getting independent film director David Lowery to co-write and direct Pete’s Dragon. Lowery wrote and directed the visually stunning Ain’t Them Bodies Saints which showcased Lowery’s eye for capturing beauty within every scene and that is no different with this film. Pete’s Dragon is a visual masterpiece and I am not just referring to the CGI used in the film. Almost every single shot looks as though it should be hanging in an art museum somewhere. There are countless breathtaking shots in the woods as well as several sweeping shots in the clouds. With Lowery’s pristine direction along with Bojan Bazelli incredible cinematography, I couldn’t help but be completely immersed by the visuals throughout the entire runtime.

Another thing to point out about Lowery is that he really knows how to blur the lines between an art house film and a big budget spectacle. There are quite a number of private and intimate scenes in Pete’s Dragon that will make audiences feel as though they are watching an independent film rather than a big budget one. I love these moments because they showcase the characters embracing those little moments that people share with one another. I found this to be particularly true whenever there were just one or two characters on-screen including many of the scenes with Pete and Elliot. I definitely admire when a filmmaker doesn’t forget his roots when taking on a bigger project like this one. I usually tend to get worried when I see smaller independent directors take on big budget studio films because I feel they get lost in the material. Its nice to see that Lowery didn’t fall into this category that you can clearly see Lowery’s independent visual and storytelling fingerprints all over the film.

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The film’s score and music choices are great as well. These elements add a whole another layer to the story. This film could easily take place in the 60s or in some town in small town America in 2016. I love that the film never reveals the era in which the story is set and the music choices only confirm that. Its nice seeing a film that doesn’t really have a time stamp on it.

My only real complaint with Pete’s Dragon is Karl Urban as Gavin. I felt as though Urban was a miscast. His performance didn’t feel genuine like all the other characters and his motives lacked explanation. The saddest thing about Gavin is that he plays a pretty significant role in the film’s story. It pains me to say this but he took me out of the film whenever he came on-screen. I was so emotionally invested with these characters and their story but couldn’t help get distracted by the tonal shift whenever Gavin became part of the story.

All in all, Pete’s Dragon is destined to become another timeless classic in the Disney film library. 2016 is clearly the year of Disney. Every single film that they have released has won me over in some way or another. Dare I say it, but for me Pete’s Dragon is the best live action Disney film of the year. I didn’t think they would top the Jungle Book but this one packed an emotional punch that brought me back to my childhood. I loved this film and even with Urban being a total miscast, I still would say this is one of my favorite films of the year.

Scott “Movie Man” Menzel’s final rating for Pete’s Dragon is a 9 out of 10.

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