Four months after The Jungle Book, Disney gives us another Mowgli. This one’s a five-year-old called Pete, who’s travelling with his parents somewhere in the US Pacific Northwest. Their car veers off the road and turns over, and even before Pete crawls away we know his parents are dead. The wolves he encounters immediately after in the woods aren’t friendly like the ones Mowgli was raised by. He’s about to meet his end when a huge, indistinct shape appears in the background. It turns out to be a green, furry—and friendly—dragon.
Six years later, Pete (Oakes Fegley) has not only survived but appears to be thriving. He wears a loincloth and races through the forest (like Mowgli), converses easily for someone cut off from human company and is fast friends with the dragon, whom he’s named Elliot. Inevitably, the outside world interferes: first loggers, then a curious ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), and her fiancé’s daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence). One morning, while Elliot is still asleep, Natalie comes across Pete. The grown-ups find the two of them, and, despite his protestations, the long-haired boy is taken to town.
Apart from The Jungle Book, David Lowery’s film also has a thematic connection with Beauty And The Beast, another Disney film built around a misunderstood creature. It has two Belles in Grace and Natalie, and a Gaston in Gavin (Karl Urban), Grace’s fiancee's brother, who sights Elliot in the woods and becomes determined to capture him. Yet, unlike Beauty And The Beast, Pete’s Dragon isn’t willing to allow its monster to be monstrous. From his leonine head to the sheen of his fur, Elliot is beautifully realized, but a lot of thought seems to have gone into making him less scary for the film’s preteen audience. He has fur, because scales are inherently scary. One of his protruding fangs is chipped. He only breathes fire once. And when he’s with Pete, he’s like a gigantic gamboling dog with wings.
Lowery, whose last film was the Malick-like Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, may not have been the most obvious choice to helm Pete’s Dragon. He displays a wistfulness and a sense of restraint unusual for a child-oriented summer movie: unlike The Jungle Book, we aren’t always bouncing from one spectacular set-piece to another. It’s reassuring to see the faith Lowery places in his young viewers to connect with a film that isn’t flashy or loud and which remains, for the most part, comfortably in third gear.
Pete’s Dragon never settles on the extent of its young protagonist’s ferality; Pete makes wolf noises when he’s in town, but also converses easily with Natalie. Young viewers should be able to relate to him as a type, but will probably end up being smitten by Elliot, a deeply charming creation, if a little too cuddly to take seriously as a dragon.
This review appeared in Mint.