2016, PG, 103 min. Directed by David Lowery. Starring Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr..
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Aug. 12, 2016
When Disney plucked David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) from the ranks of indie filmmakers to head up the remake of the studio’s 1977 children’s fantasy Pete’s Dragon, they chose the right guy, even though little in Lowery’s reality-based career made him seem like someone who had a hidden talent for directing magical dragons. But Lowery does have a knack for working with actors and eliciting from them heartfelt performances. Thus, this mixed live-action and CGI movie turns out to be a delight that features an embracingly warm feral boy named Pete (Fegley) and the furry dragon he calls Elliot.
The magic of the piece takes hold before the film’s opening credits arrive. Preschool-aged Pete is orphaned by a (tasteful) car wreck that kills his parents with whom he is traveling to a new home in the Pacific Northwest. Just prior to the crash, his mother had been explaining the word “adventure” to him. Pete subsequently wanders off into the woods where, at the first sign of danger, a flying dragon swoops in to protect the boy. If a dog is a man’s best friend, then a furry dragon who often acts like a dog (especially when chasing his own tail) is this boy’s best pal. After the opening credits, the film cuts to six years later, where we find Pete and Elliot (a name which you half expect to hear spoken with E.T.’s halting cadence, so much does this movie recall the wonder of the Spielberg classic) living their adventure jointly in a tree in the forest. Playfully, Pete boards Elliot to fly about (although the dragon has trouble sticking his landings), and we learn of Elliot’s ability to make himself invisible at will (which enhances the movie’s fantasy aspect).
Their forest idyll comes to an end due to Pete’s curiosity about the park ranger Grace (Howard, seeming much more in tune with the CGI dragon than she did with those dinosaurs in Jurassic World). She discovers the feral child and brings him to the house of her boyfriend Jack (Bentley) and his similarly aged daughter Natalie (Laurence). Jack owns the lumber mill that is cutting down the forest to make way for new development (cue the ecological messages). Grace lives with her father Meacham (Redford), who regales each new generation of kids with his tale of having long ago seen a dragon in the woods beyond their homes (cue the film’s magical elements that remind us that you’re never too old to believe). Except for Karl Urban as Jack’s brother Gavin, who plays the film’s requisite baddie, the characters are all sensitive creations.
Yes, this is a children’s movie with messages about everybody being right where they belong. Yet that contentment is a hard-won knowledge, one that does not come without certain regrets and lends a realistic edge to the more magical stuff. And in what other children’s film will you hear a Leonard Cohen song played? Pete’s Dragon has the power to breathe fire into the most tepid of souls.
See our interview with the filmmakers, August 12.