Simple stories get a bad rap these days. In an era of big blockbusters that constantly crossover with one another, telling increasingly complex stories, films that instead choose to focus on a straightforward, familiar narrative structure sometimes get ignored for not doing enough to shake things up. On some level, I understand the sentiment; it’s tough to sit through a movie that simply follows standard story beats and fails to offer anything new. However, a story doesn’t need to be complex in order to be good, and that’s where Pete’s Dragon succeeds. It’s a simple story told exceptionally well, making it easy to forgive how predictable the story is because of how engaging and entertaining it is throughout.
If you don’t have any familiarity with the 1977 original, no worries; outside of a few references, 2016’s Pete’s Dragon takes the basic concept of a boy with a pet dragon and spins it in a completely different direction. The film follows young Pete (Oakes Fegley) who, after the death of his parents in a car crash, ends up living in the forest. He befriends a dragon, who he names Elliott, and proceeds to spend the next six years surviving with his friends. His world changes, however, when loggers from the nearby town push deeper into the forest. Pete is soon discovered and taken in by park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), causing complications in his relationship with Pete.
If you have guesses about where the story goes from there, well, you’re probably right. A lot of the film focuses on Pete’s return to society, his desire to reunite with Elliott, and the danger Elliott faces when he’s discovered by society. Similarly, the characters outside of Pete, Elliott and Grace primarily exist to serve their roles as opposed to having defined arcs, with Karl Urban as the antagonistic logger, Robert Redford as Grace’s father and dragon believer, and Wes Bentley as Grace’s loving husband.
Still, the film works because every cast member is fully committed to their roles, giving it their all in every scene. When Grace’s father tells his story about the first time he saw a dragon in the woods, Redford sells the emotion of the moment, and the same can be said for Urban’s terrified reactions and Grace’s newfound love for Pete. This film wouldn’t work if we didn’t feel the emotions of the characters, and that’s never a problem here.
The biggest emotional connection need to be with central characters Pete and Elliott, which is a lot to ask of a child actor and computer-generated image respectively. Fortunately, both work wonderfully, giving the film its warm, relatable heart. Fegley is fantastic as Pete, selling the character’s feral, wild side just as well as his worry and love for Elliott.
Elliott, meanwhile, is a fantastic creation, a stellar CGI creation that at no point doesn’t feel like he’s actually on screen. Both on the ground and in the air, Elliott carries the appropriate amount of weight, and all of the actors’ interactions with him feel right, thanks again to the committed performances. More importantly, Elliott’s design makes it impossible not to fall in love with the creature. He’s a big, furry dragon with a mix of cat and dog mannerisms, and it’s clear from the outset how much he loves and cares about Pete.
Love and caring really do define the film, which carries an overall positive atmosphere and goodhearted nature. It’s a refreshing change of pace for Disney’s “live-action fairy tales,” many of which have added a lot of darkness and/or cynicism that took away from the lighthearted tone of the films they’ve been based on. For as different as Pete’s Dragon is from the original, it still feels like classic Disney in a way Maleficent and the live-action Alice in Wonderland don’t.
If there’s one complaint to throw the film’s way, it’s that the stakes never feel like they get that high; even during the film’s climax, the threat to Pete and Elliott isn’t that dire. Also, the film’s action is solid, but still fairly small-scale. This isn’t a film you go to if you want to be wowed by the special effects – outside of Elliot himself, of course – or the choreography.
But none of that really matters, because the film succeeds so well on an emotional level. Again, Pete and Elliott are both adorable, relatable characters, and you always feel for them. And while the film’s action climax is only okay, the emotional one packs a wallop, and I found myself fighting back tears during the final few minutes.
Pete’s Dragon isn’t a movie that’s going to surprise or shock you; that’s simply not what it’s built to do. However, if you’re open to the simple story that it does such a good job telling, it is a movie that can sneak up on you, providing an emotionally compelling and satisfying tale for kids of all ages.
Final Score: 8 out of 10