“Pete’s Dragon” might just be the boldest film of the summer, and not for the reasons you’d expect. It’s not thematically original, really, nor is stylistically shocking.
The boldness comes from what’s not here. It is free of cynicism; devoid of pop songs, sassy kids or fart jokes; and centered around concepts of real-life magic and wonderment. This makes “Pete’s Dragon” stand out in the 2016 kid-flick landscape.
Director David Lowery’s remake of a little-remembered 1977 Disney blend of live-action and animation opens with a startlingly sad sequence that results in a 4-year-old boy, Pete, isolated and alone in a menacing forest. He is saved from a grim fate by an enormous, green, good-natured dragon he calls Elliott.
The dragon is rather doglike, a furry, friendly beast who loves to cuddle; appearance-wise, think Hagrid’s dog, Fang, rather than the Khaleesi’s scale-y kiddos on “Game of Thrones.”
For the next six years, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is an orphan in the forest. He is curious about the humans who occasionally wander near his home, and one day has an encounter with the smart, curious Natalie (Oona Laurence). After an accident in the woods, he is brought home by Natalie, her park ranger soon-to-be-stepmom Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), and her father Jack (Wes Bentley).
Jack’s trigger-happy brother Gavin (Karl Urban) soon discovers the existence of Elliott, a creature previously seen by just one other human, Grace’s father. Played by a wonderful Robert Redford, the character is known only by his last name, Meacham. With Gavin in pursuit, Pete and his new friends must find Elliott before it’s too late.
It’s a simple story, really, and admittedly, simple characters. Grace and Jack are sweet but dull, while Pete and Natalie and likable but rather unmemorable. Only Redford, and to a lesser extent Urban, stand out among the cast.
But that’s OK. The human characters seem almost designed to support the dragon, and Elliott does not disappoint. While there are few shades to his personality, his look and demeanor are delightful.
Key to the film’s success is the choice of director. David Lowery’s second feature, 2013’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” was remarkably fresh and stylistically thrilling. A somber lovers-on-the-lam drama starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, it signaled Lowery as a filmmaker to watch.
Following “Saints” with “Pete’s Dragon” was a wildly unexpected move; kudos to Lowery (who also co-wrote) for the left-field choice, and to Disney for entrusting the property to a relatively offbeat director. The pairing has resulted in another win for Disney, and in one of the more charming family entertainments of the year so far.
Here’s more about the film.
What’s the ideal viewing age? And what ages should avoid seeing this?
Kids around the age of 10 – Pete’s age, actually – will likely have the strongest response. There is little to no violence except for some darts fired Elliott’s way, and no disagreeable language. However, much of the film has a somber feel, and the opening, especially, is downright heartbreaking. That means “Pete’s Dragon” is a bit too dark for those 5 and under. Despite some early jitters, however, my 6-year-old quite liked it.
What was the audience response?
It’s a talky film, really, and even the scenes between Pete and Elliott have a contemplative feel. So it was unsurprising that some of the young audience members seemed restless at times. However, they laughed and gasped at the right moments, and cheered wildly at the ending.
How does it compare to the original?
I’ve only seen a few minutes of the rather ugly 1977 Disney film that featured Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney, Red Buttons, Shelley Winters and Jim Backus – a murderer’s row of your grandmother’s favorites. I asked a friend at the screening about the 2016 version’s similarities to the original, and he shared that beyond the presence of a boy, a dragon and a little girl, it’s almost completely different.
Do we need to see it in 3-D?
No. In fact, the 3-D effects made the film appear dark and muddy at times.
Will parents stay awake?
There is plenty here to keep the attention of adults – lovely visuals, a folk song-filled soundtrack, likable actors like Robert Redford and Bryce Dallas Howard. In other words, “Pete’s Dragon” is, like “Finding Dory” and “The Jungle Book,” a genuine crowd-pleaser.
3 stars (out of 4)
Title: “Pete’s Dragon”
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Robert Redford
Director: David Lowery
Running time: 102 minutes
Rated: PG for action, peril and brief language.
The lowdown: A forest ranger discovers a boy named Pete who has lived in the woods for six years with a mysterious dragon he calls Elliott.