Pete’s Dragon is a warm cup of cocoa and a hug from Robert Redford at the end of the summer.
It plays like a lost movie from Carroll Ballard (The Black Stallion, Duma) that Hollywood released by mistake, not realizing that it wasn’t filled with smart-mouthed kids and bodily-function jokes. They don’t make mainstream movies like this anymore. So go see this one.
The worst thing you can say about Pete’s Dragon is that although it is filled with a sense of magic, it doesn’t have the soaring set pieces or excitement-filled climax to please audiences that aren’t in touch with their inner child. Moviegoers on the younger side of adulthood especially, who don’t remember that all kid movies used to be like this, might find it slow.
But the sense of place is real, and the emotional beats are well-earned. The dragon is a character, not just a spectacle. Can you imagine what a “Transformers” or “Smurfs” movie would look like if all the special effects were removed? Pete’s Dragon would still be a good film.
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It’s a fairly radical reboot of the 1977 animated film Pete’s Dragon, much like this year’s equally pleasing early summer child-raised-by-animals-in-the-woods bookend The Jungle Book. The music and goofball elements are all but removed in both movies, the tone is more serious, and the stakes more real.
Pete’s Dragon begins with a small child witnessing his parents’ death, and thoughtfully explores his actions and anxieties after spending six years away from society.
Pete finds a surrogate family in forest ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), her father (Redford) and a step-daughter who is the orphan’s age. They live in an idyllic Pacific Northwest town, except for the logging interests, led by men with a conquering spirit that counterpoints the Meachams’ preservation beliefs.
David Lowery, an indie film stalwart, co-writes and directs Pete’s Dragon with subtle graces that are hard to find in family movies with $50 million budgets and worldwide marketing campaigns.
The soundtrack is roots music made by adults, not some new Disney band. Even after watching the film, it’s hard to pinpoint the era the events takes place during. The 1980s? In the year 2016? In a parallel universe with elements of both?
I’m imagining Lowery and his producers fighting tooth and nail as they turned in each daily, or the studio executives getting a visit from a ticked-off ghost of Walt Disney during production. It’s a film made by confident people thinking 50 years down the line, knowing that quality filmmaking will have value in the vault, even if it doesn’t break records on opening weekend.
The two child actors, Oakes Fegley as Pete and Oona Laurence as young Natalie, are excellent, not just believable but absorbing in their scenes together. (Another credit to Lowery — as we’ve learned from Steven Spielberg, Robert Zemeckis and Danny Boyle, exceptional child acting reflects on the director.)
But Redford holds the movie together, a sage respected elder, looking over our shoulders to remind us we can do better.
In terms of tone and intentions, Spielberg’s E.T. and Brad Bird’s animation masterpiece The Iron Giant are two close cousins. Lowery either didn’t have the ambition or the resources to match the climaxes of those classics, and the finale doesn’t ascend into the stratosphere like either film.
But Pete’s Dragon gets the little things right: the profound sadness of a child, and the hard decisions of a responsible adult. The choice of leaving comfort behind, to explore a new adventure. The contentment of old age, when you still believe in magic.
There should be more American family movies like Pete’s Dragon. Since there aren’t, we should get behind this one.
☆☆☆☆ 1/2 (out of five)
Director: David Lowery
Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Karl Urban, Oakes Fegley
Running time: 103 min.