The rule of thumb with cinematic remakes is to redo a movie that wasn't very good in the first place, except you try fix everything that sucked about the original. David Lowery seems to understand this very well because he took a look at the original Pete's Dragon—which is better off as a fond memory rather than an actual experience—tossed most of it out the window and started over from scratch. He also watched The Black Stallion, E.T. and last year's Room a bunch of times and voila, you have Pete's Dragon, v.2016.
There is, however, little about Disney's newest resurrection job that is particularly 2016-esque, besides the presence of a majestic, if goofy, CGI dragon. The film takes place in some undisclosed earlier time, when people were unencumbered by cell phones or the Internet (the de rigueur technology in the movie is a record player). The pacing, volume and overall look of the movie are distinctly 1970s in their style, with Robert Redford bringing up the rear to complete the illusion. This is a welcome change in a time when children's cinema is filled with loud, manic films like Minions or even Disney's very own Jungle Book remake from earlier this year, which I found (with little popularity) to be nails on a chalkboard.
This is also a film that is aimed at young children but doesn't seek to pander to them, much like the cinematic output of Studio Ghibli. Lowery has crafted an emotionally sensitive, lyrical film that has almost as much to offer to adults as it does to their kids. Part of my hesitation is that Lowery does a far better job with some characters than he does with others. Oaks Fegley as the eponymous Pete is terrific, as is Oona Laurence as his precocious, pseudo-adoptive sister. Their scenes together, in which kids are just being kids, are about as good as I've seen in a long time. Even Bryce Dallas Howard, who has a history of being underserved by Hollywood, manages to shine as the most motherly of characters since her doppelgänger, Jessica Chastain, broke through in The Tree of Life.
The men in the film do not fare so well. Wes Bentley continues his comeback into mainstream cinema by, once again, having almost nothing to do in the movie (although it's refreshing that a man gets to be The Thankless Spouse for once). Redford, whose presence in the film is thankfully brief, is mostly forgettable and occasionally cloying as the folksy grandfatherly type, who you'd think would connect more with Pete, but really has nothing of substance to say or do; the best thing you can say about him is he has a valid driver's license. And finally, we have Karl Urban as the Kid's Movie Villain, a man who doesn't mean too much intentional harm, but is such a blowhard that he doesn't realize the havoc he is wreaking. Even Redford, whose motivations are thin at best, begs Urban to account for what his plans are with the dragon once he captures it. Urban is a complete ham in the role, as he is wont to do in the Star Trek films and Dredd. He has some lines that are risible, not entirely in a bad way, but he deflates the film of any tension it attempts to create.
The most divisive achievement of the film is that dragon, Elliot, whom Lowery claims is based off his cat, if Lowery has a rather dog-like cat. Elliot's design is not unlike that of the original cartoon dragon, whose lantern jaw makes a reappearance, although his stupid pink hair mercifully does not. Elliot does not speak in this film, but rather snuffles and grunts like a hound, warbles like a Wookie and bays like a foghorn when in distress. He is gangly and awkward in his movements, failing to stick most landings after a flight, which makes for most of the charming physical comedy in the film. Despite his outsize, Clifford the Big Green Dragon appearance, his connection to Pete is readily apparent; in a scene ripped straight out of E.T., Pete's attempts to rejuvenate a tranquilized Elliot hit hard, right in the feels, because you can see how desperately the pair needs each other.
You can see that I've failed to discuss the story, which is besides the point. I believe Lowery himself understands that, in that he eschews the run-on-sentence-style plotting of most Hollywood films in lieu of character-establishing scenes, in which we see Pete and Elliot gallivanting through the woods, simply having a good time together. Parental figures read a book to some children. The dragon realizes his place—and that of Pete—in the world. Elliot is discovered, the bad guy wants to subdue him, cha cha cha. Not a lot happens in the movie, and what does, is fairly predictable. But the scenes between Pete and Elliot are so beautifully filmed and so languidly paced that I didn't mind that nearly an hour had passed before anything of substance with the plot had occurred.
Lowery snuck in an indie film about a small town in the Pacific Northwest when his assignment had been a mercenary retelling of a forgotten curio in the Disney vault. It's the sort of project that gets increasingly pawned off on small-potatoes filmmakers who require only a tuppence for their services and a bit of recognition. I'm glad to see that Lowery did not throw away his shot. Now maybe Disney and the Hollywood gatekeepers can spread the love to some people with two X chromosomes, for a change.