Movie Review: Pete’s Dragon (2016)

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With movies such as Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur and the harmonious hit Zootopia, Disney demonstrates that taking risks pays off with imaginative themes, scripts and storytelling. This summer’s animated/live action picture Pete’s Dragon, directed and co-written by the relatively new director David Lowery, is another good, wholesome family movie with warmth, intelligence and imagination. The reboot of a 1977 Disney movie with Shelley Winters, Helen Reddy and Mickey Rooney of the same name debuts in theaters on August 12.

Pete’s Dragon is not without flaws, risks and odd moments. A character played by Wes Bentley (The Hunger Games, Lovelace) is underdeveloped. An old wood carver played by Robert Redford (An Unfinished Life, Captain America 2) is underdeployed. Bryce Dallas Howard (Hereafter, Terminator Salvation, Spider-Man 3) as the Redford character’s forest ranger daughter is more natural than usual but still overacts. Family relationships are unclear. The setting’s place and timeframe are also a problem. But the gentle blend of fantasy with realism allows Pete’s Dragon to be quiet, still and breathtaking. The picture, shot in New Zealand, is produced by Jim Whitaker (The Finest Hours).

In one of those classic Disney twists, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is left alone and parentless in the deep woods following a tragic car crash, rendering the whole story sort of a reverse Bambi except that it’s the beast, not man, that’s in the forest (notice how a deer figures into the plot, too). Pete is a young boy when this happens, equipped only with abiding love, an ability to read a story, his father’s sense of adventure and affirmation from his mother of his bravery as a virtue.

Aren’t these all a boy needs to be prepared to live?

Of course not, but they’re a good start, especially for an adventure story of a boy and his dragon and, lest you think Disney’s attempting to cash in on DreamWorks’ Dragon movie success, this one’s entirely different. Casting credit goes to Debra Zane who thankfully has an eye for casting un-precocious kids such as Fegley as the lost boy and the local girl, Natalie (Oona Laurence), who discovers Pete’s primitive existence.

Natalie’s dad (Bentley) owns a lumber mill, her uncle (Karl Urban, Bones in Star Trek Beyond) is a greedy lumberjack who hunts and Howard’s forest ranger, who lives with Natalie’s dad, predictably tilts left on ecology. If it sounds like an environmentalist cliche waiting to get tree-spiked, it isn’t. One of the nicest things about Pete’s Dragon is a more balanced approach (this it has in common with Zootopia) to politics, though Urban’s character borders on caricature.

Another nice thing is the girl’s relationship to the boy. See it and judge for yourself. It’s plain and simple. The two kids climb trees. They get hurt, angry, sullen and competitive and they have fun and keep secrets from adults. How refreshing. In that sense, Lowery and company keep the movie in a mid-1970s spirit, complete with acoustic guitar-driven tunes, classic cars and station wagons and a leisurely pace. Pete’s Dragon evokes Seventies’ solitude in nature works such as My Side of the Mountain and Jeremiah Johnson.

There’s not much to say about the 24-foot dragon, a green-haired, big-jawed snaggletooth Pete names Elliot for a dog in his favorite children’s book. Elliot feels ripped from the Seventies, too, as he’s a mild-mannered, innocent like the kid and the two romp, snuggle and take flight like a boy and his big dog. But there’s more to Elliot than being just another animated figure. His instincts are evident in his eyes. He senses danger. He has an ability to make himself invisible and he’s curious like Pete, too. That his heart beats loud enough when he’s filled with confused, raging desire to connect with his friend Pete sort of sneaks up on the audience. By all outward appearance, Elliot, beautifully animated in his gestures, eyes and flaring, breathing nostrils, loves his friend and his life.

When both are endangered, Pete’s Dragon gets worked up and twists with surprise and conjures the best boys’ friendship movies, from Disney’s Old Yeller and So Dear to My Heart to Steven Spielberg’s ET. It’s almost of that caliber at times, though it’s too imprecise in time, relationships and location and, lacking a defined timeframe, it’s impossible to block out one’s knowledge of global positioning technology and drones. Themes of loss and what makes a family are tenderly depicted. With mountain woods mythology and the sense of a real friend whose majesty can lift you up and take you away from everything wrong with the world—if only for a time—Pete’s Dragon earns and generates emotional power; moreover, it does this with an ending which deposits a boyhood lesson that the best things in life are earned, kept private and ought not to be shared. This subversive idea is in the title if you think about it—Elliot belongs by mutual consent to Pete—and it plays across this magical, intimate movie with a childlike sense of abandon.

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