Nostalgia is one hell of a drug. Over the past few months in particular, we’ve all fallen victim to various movies and TV shows stoking at our love of past media and especially the 80s. It’s not just various nostalgia though. We’re being fed peak 80’s cinema culture. As directors like Jeff Nichols, Jeremy Saulnier, and The Duffer Brothers pay homage to legendary director John Carpenter, we suck it up as the next best thing. A few of the prior directors have been accused of straight ripping off from Carpenter; that’s not easily said for Pete’s Dragon director David Lowery. After his sophomore film, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, left a mark on the indie world, Disney picked him to remake the lesser known musical from 1977. Does it manage to become its own beast?
Normally in this part of the review, I would summarize the plot, but here’s where Pete’s Dragon differs from a lot of films. There isn’t much of a plot, and that’s pretty refreshing. A boy is left in the wilderness and befriends a dragon before being found by the encroaching civilization. What makes that so remarkable is how Lowery (and Disney) allow the film to breathe. After the breakneck pace of numerous television series and 2 & a half hour films, Lowery allows the characters to naturally be within the universe that the rest of the film builds. When was the last time a mainstream movie let an expositional scene be over 5 minutes? I can’t remember.
Despite a lot of the originality displayed, Pete’s Dragon has still come under fire for playing right out of Steven Spielberg’s wheelhouse. The criticisms are not unfounded. The film has a close resemblance to Spielberg’s 1982 classic, E.T. The Extra Terrestrial. A boy befriends a creature and discovers a world of magic and fright along the way. What moves Pete’s Dragon into its own thing is how patient it is. Lowery could have easily made this film 90 minutes and had every piece of film stripped of life. It shows incredible restraint to pull off a film like this and Lowery has it in spades.
All that being said, this films belongs to a handful of people. First off is Lowery himself. Aside from all the reasons I previously mentioned, he understands how to build setting and time. Set roughly in the late 70s to early 80s in a small mid-western town, Lowery sets out to never tell the audience any of these things. Based on geography and the technology around these characters, we have to look into that ourselves. We’re trusted as an audience to do the heavy lifting. Our star, Oakes Fegley is tremendous as Pete. Filled with wonder and awe, the young actor is entirely convincing as a boy that lives with this dragon. So many humorous scenes are sold out of his reaction to random objects, but he can do the harsh emotional scenes as well. Last, but not least, I’ve got to give it to the animators of Elliot the Dragon. While not exactly photo-realistic, his presence is completely believable to the world established and works wonders on the audience.
It says a lot about a film when my main problem is that the remaining actors aren’t given enough material to be any better than they usually are. All other actors are, at the very least, solid. Pete’s Dragon is a solid experience that is able to exist on its own terms and knows how to modestly accomplish its goals. After putting Spielberg to shame and becoming attached to Disney’s upcoming live-action remake, Peter Pan; I’d say it’s safe to give Lowery some time to make his own thing. Then again, if he keeps doing director-for-hire movies this good, I don’t see why they would even let him go. For that, I definitely don’t blame them.
- Newcomer Oakes Fegley is an outstanding talent to look out for
- David Lowery proves he's not a one-hit-wonder, establishing setting better than most
- Nostalgia is not manipulated from the viewer, but allowed to breathe
- Excellent solid effort from Disney after a string of narrative failures
- Most actors are great, but their material is lacking