In the small lumber town of Millhaven, Oregon, there are stories told by old men to the town’s children, that in the Pacific Northwest there are forests which are still so unexplored there remain magical creatures, fierce and terrifying, whispered of in song…
Go North, go North with wings on your feet,
North with the wind where the three rivers meet.
Look all around you and see,
Deep in the forest there dragons will be…
Six years ago a couple were driving with their young son near the expansive forests near Millhaven when tragedy struck. The accident left toddler Pete lost in the forest, the only survivor. With no parents he wandered alone, terrified and helpless until he found a friend, someone to help and protect him who became his best friend…someone who just happens to be a dragon.
Now the local logging company run by brothers Jack (Interstellar’s Wes Bentley) and Gavin (Star Trek Beyond’s Karl Urban) is cutting deeper into the woodlands near to Elliott and Pete’s forest home. Fighting to protect the land she’s grown up in, the work of Forest Ranger Grace Meacham (Jurassic World’s Bryce Dallas Howard) is made more difficult as she’s engaged to Jack.
While they argue over a contested piece of land Jack’s daughter Natalie (Southpaw’s Oona Laurence) catches a glimpse of a young boy watching them from the forest, Pete (Person of Interest’s Oakes Fegley), investigating why the trees had fallen. Deciding this wild child will be her new friend, Natalie and Pete are startled by the adults, and having fallen from a tree in his rush to escape Pete is taken unconscious to hospital.
Reasoning that a family environment may be more beneficial to his recovery than social services, Grace tries to discover how Pete survived on his own, and as he describes his large green friend Elliot was with him she is reminded of the old stories she used to hear from her father (Three Days of the Condor’s Robert Redford, more recently seen in Captain America: The Winter Soldier), Pete’s picture of Elliott matching something she once saw as a child.
Meanwhile, with their logging temporarily curtailed, Gavin and his men have taken to hunting something far bigger than they ever imagined…
A dragon lore obsessive whose stories are known by the whole town, Grace’s relationship with her father works as a great mechanism to bring the characters and the audience up to speed, avoiding any pointless “dragon’s aren’t real” conversations, the leaps of faith feeling natural as Grace rediscovers sketches of Elliott made by her father during her own childhood, giving a flowing pace to the film.
The quest to capture the dragon similarly feels honest; rather than a straightforward monster hunt by a stock bad guy, with the logging business not doing well Gavin sees capturing the dragon as a way to provide for his family, and Urban works his usual magic balancing of a character who doesn’t really mean ill but does what he believes to be right without thinking through the consequences.
The ensemble cast are the strength of the movie, reaching out to bridge the emotional gap the withdrawn Pete, Howard establishing that relationship from her first scene with Fegley. Redford and Howard make for a strong father / daughter relationship and are a pleasure to watch on screen together, while Laurence absolutely shines, makes her scenes with the more reticent Fegley come alive.
The small town setting, some of it filmed in Tapanui, New Zealand (population 770) gives a wonderful tangibility and timelessness to the film, and with no overt modern technology the events could be set at any point in the last forty years. Daniel Hart’s standout soundtrack gives an emotional weight throughout with equal parts nostalgia and novelty, and director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) demonstrates flair in creating some beautiful moments combining the soundtrack and visuals, the chase scene with Pete fleeing the hospital, leaping from vehicle to vehicle, the audience wishing to run as free as him, or the opening scene of the car accident, Pete strapped into his child seat as the world spins around, a necessary scene to tell the story handled with subtlety.
Certain action scenes in the evening forest have low lighting and poor contrast to the point where the audience can struggle to make out the action, and Elliott (with vocalisations from Tales from the Crypt’s John Kassir) sometimes suffers from overly good camouflage; while he has the gift of invisibility, even when he is meant to be visible he is often too close in tone to the forest background, diminishing the spectacle of seeing a dragon on screen.
This movie is not a remake of the 1977 family favourite with which it shares the name and basic concept (who could ever recapture that uniqueness?), but it is an entirely new story with new characters. While some may lament the absence of musical song and dance numbers, or of Jim Dale’s great Doctor Terminus, this should be looked on, especially by fans of the classic, as an entirely different movie perfect for Sunday afternoon viewing with the family.
Pete’s Dragon may not break any new ground or highlight new technical magic, but it is a good family fun adventure movie with a strong cast, a good soundtrack and of course DRAGONS!
Pete’s Dragon is on general release from Friday 12th August