'Pete's Dragon' Doesn't Let The CGI Spectacle Get In The Way Of A Heartwarming Tale

Sundance has always been a bit of a calling card for young filmmakers to find their way to larger Hollywood projects, but recent years have seen the jump from a million-dollar budget to $200 million as the new norm. Just ask Colin Trevorrow, Jon Watts, or Jordan Vogt-Roberts (if you don't know their names, their studios don't want you to). Their jobs are to put the actors in the frame to deliver dialogue and then let various post-production teams do the rest. Pete's Dragon, Disney's remake of its 1977 semi-animated film that apparently hits the nostalgia button of some millennial focus group, has a similar story with its hiring of Ain't Them Bodies Saints director David Lowery. But whether due to the (comparatively) small size of the budget at $65 million or simply Lowery's commitment to finding the crevasses where personality is allowed, this tale strives for simple and small pleasures with classic (and earned) Disney Emotion™.

Lowery sets his film in a setting probably one could call Spielbergia—it's the '80s and the place is a small town in the Pacific Northwest (though shot in New Zealand) with overcast weather and a group of teens riding down Main Street on bicycles. There's even a wise old man (Mr. Sundance himself, Robert Redford) to tell a tale of wild imagination. That tale brings alive the legend of the film's titular dragon, who meets Pete (Oakes Fegley) during a prologue in which the recently-orphaned child finds a friend in the CGI creation. The story is a mix of two other recent Disney releases (The Jungle Book and The BFG) where Pete's discovery is not the dragon but the world he left behind 6 years to become a boy of the forest. In fact, the film's most magical sequence follows Pete running through the town where his encounters with quotidian details like puppies and school buses transform into alien spectacle through his eyes.

Of course, the true spectacle is the CGI dragon of the title, which New Zealand-based Weta Workshop designed, based on various mammals to find a mix of the absolutely cuddly and occasionally majestic. The fuzzy green fur bounces various light textures while its pig-like snout with puppy dog-eyes displays a cornucopia of emotion. Disney's 1977 film literally made its character animated and there is still a sense of a cartoon background, but Lowery and his team have seamed the rift between the creature and his world. The forest and surrounding areas avoid pastels for a mix of grays and greens with expressive shadows from Bojan Bazelli's photography. While the score occasionally hits intense melodramatic notes, it more often strums together acoustic guitar-set montages to calm the pace.

It may be only by comparison that Pete's Dragon gets a pass for having a genuine storytelling motive behind it, but the direction here shows a knack for the economy of film language. After Ain't Them Bodies Saints showed a little too many stylistic tics, Lowery's camera remains more subtle. It would be hard to explain the method but he knows when to choose a close-up instead of a two shot, or angle a body not just to show off the special effects but to highlight the emotional journey of his characters. It's a kind of rare Spielberg homage (of which the film does reference many—including the underrated Sugarland Express) where the camera captures experience first and spectacle second.

He perhaps is not as strong with actors: while Fegley and Oona Lawrence give the kind of kid performances one expect, the casting of Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley, and Karl Urban as the bewildered adults ends up less inspired. In part, delivering monologues about imagination and family and all the other important lessons for kids will always seem stiff. But the textures around them speak with such simplicity, especially those between Fegley acting against, his furry CGI counterpart. The two build such a natural report of gestures and facial expressions to fill an entire lifetime of friendship.

Pete's Dragon opens everywhere on Friday.

Peter Labuza is a freelance film critic, whose work has appeared in Variety, Sight & Sound, and The A.V. Club. Follow him on Twitter.