“From the director of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” isn’t exactly a heart-racing selling point. That’s no slight of said director, David Lowery, and the fine work he did on his 2013 Sundance hit, in which Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara play law-breaking lovers who lose sight of each other through the fog of time spent behind bars. No-one in that film’s cast, be they cop or crook, stops to explain the loquacious title, but few things have to be explained as the film sidewinds through personal dramas in a dusk-lit Texas, laden with Western lyricism and overtones. In spite of those strengths it underperformed, and Lowery’s impressive work outside the director’s chair (producer on Listen Up Philip, editor on Upstream Color), isn’t the kind of thing a film’s marketing department can hang its hat on.
Still, Lowery’s work did something for someone at the Walt Disney Company. Lowery is behind the behemoth’s new release, Pete’s Dragon; the next stop in Disney’s apparent mission to remake all of their older films into CG-filled extravaganzas, following The Jungle Book and the Alice in Wonderland sequel, both from this year alone. I imagine that the 1977 original Pete’s Dragon is far down on most people’s wishlists for hand-drawn classics in need of a modernisation—it’s only partly hand-drawn and hardly a classic, with humans reacting to a daffy fire-breather and mugging their way through two hours of musical torpor. Thankfully, Lowery and co-screenwriter Toby Halbrooks (his producer on Saints) take plenty of liberties in their adaptation, while staying true to the elevator pitch about an orphan boy (Oakes Fegley) bonding with his beloved green monster (now a furry CG creation by Weta Digital). They have delivered an even rarer beast; a mainstream tale with humility that—unlike the studio’s other recent screen-hoggers—no audience was urged to sketch out in their heads years in advance.1
It beams rural charm from the very first shot; the camera soars above the woodlands and into a car cruising down a sunlit road, where Pete reads aloud from a storybook to his loving parents. Then: a sudden, horrific accident, and the sun disappears. Pete runs into the dark forest away from the car wreckage where his parents lay dead, and straight into the path of the benevolent titular giant. Years later, in the early 80s, a kindly carpenter thrills kids in the nearby town of Millhaven with the story of his own encounter with the animal. He’s played by Robert Redford, and in rare form too—I found it hard not to feel awed as he described the awe-inspiring sight, and it certainly tops everything that came out of his mouth in his last ode to nature, A Walk in the Woods. He doesn’t give the dragon a name, and his ranger-daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) assumes it’s a figment of his imagination, no name needed. Pete, however, still lives with it as a long-haired wilding, and has named it after a character in his picture book: “Elliot”. He’d stay with his protector forever, but once Grace’s stepdaughter Natalie (Oona Lawrence) spots him at a logging site, it’s only a matter of time before the veil is pulled away.
Anyone who wore out the VHS tape of Don Chaffey’s version will recognise several beats here: Elliot’s ability to turn invisible and breathe fire, an antagonist—formerly a mincing quack, now Karl Urban in a plaid shirt—who wants to capture the creature for profit, and Pete’s search for a loving new family. Those elements aside, Lowery’s version trades the original film’s “razzle-brazzle” stereotypes (dirty hillbillies, boorish dock-workers, a vindictive schoolmaster) for Saints’ humbling sense of time and place—pretty remarkable, given that its Oregon setting is really the New Zealand countryside. This goes beyond having less (or less noticeable) green screens, nor is it limited to simple “grounded” cues from Lowery, though his Jacob Tremblay-looking hero and continued fondness for poignant low-lighting might suggest it. He excels at communicating the local folk tales: the dragon has his—or her, or it, as hunter Gavin (Urban) muses—image carved in wood, and Redford’s character references the lyrics to a song about it, which we can hear being sung by Bonny “Prince” Billy.2 Millhaven itself rarely appears without similar folk music from the likes of The Lumineers, St. Vincent and Leonard Cohen. It struck me like the type of plyboard-built town I’d pass through on family holidays, something particularly pronounced to me in the sequence where Pete escapes from the hospital and goes running along the main street. Unsurprising of Disney to tap nostalgia, sure, but it’s coherent and pleasing under Lowery’s assured hand.
It’s not entirely free of blockbuster trappings: there’s soaring, there’s bumbling, and there’s a final-act chase that teeters on the edge of both a literal cliff and the bounds of the low-key identity it establishes for itself. This largely works out for the better though, since it jettisons Saints’ humourlessness for welcome bits of silliness, like when Urban bellows “follow that dragon!” or Isiah Whitlock Jr. breaks his stolidness as a local cop to bark at his colleague “you can’t say ‘dragon’ over the radio!” Saints struck a balance between luxuriating in spaces and ushering the narrative along, and Dragon does much the same to keep things sprightly. In the process, Lowery and Halbrooks’ goals have coalesced with the Mouse House’s into real awe and heart-warmth; the kind that survives even when packaged for mass consumption. It’s Redford who expresses this achievement in one earnest, wistful remembrance: “The sun shone down, the wind blew through the trees, and I thought ‘boy, this is where I belong’…”