There is a war going on in Pete’s Dragon. Thankfully, and with much apparent pride on the part of the filmmakers, it is not between robot armies, drones, orcs or any of the other products of the zeros and ones that have made watching film spectacles such a bludgeoning experience for the past decade plus. This movie—essentially a boy and his dog tale where the dog is a furry green dragon—is cut from much gentler cloth than that.
PETE’S DRAGON ★★
Written by: David Lowery and Toby Halbrooks
No, the battle here is between the sincerity of the filmmakers’ intentions and the cynicism driving the film’s creation. Part of Disney’s ongoing attempt to use CGI to make fresh meals out of the dustiest cans in its cupboard, Pete’s Dragon is one of those movies that talks a lot about magic—Robert Redford, the grandfatherly narrator whose “by and by” bookends the film, says the word at last seven times—rather than effectively presenting it on screen. It functions on the mistaken idea that its genuinely kind heart and occasional cinematic flourish can make up for generally muddled characters who are supplied with the barest of motivations.
Which is not to say that Pete’s Dragon doesn’t do a lot of things right, starting with jettisoning everything from the 1977 original save the title and the boy with a dragon friend that occasionally turns invisible. (That film was a rather cynical attempt on Disney’s part to keep the Mary Poppins gravy train running.) There are no songs, no comically inebriated lighthouse keepers named Lampie, and the action has been relocated from seaside Maine to a lumber town in the Pacific Northwest. Pete, a 10-year-old we first meet when his is about 4, is an orphan, the result of a car accident that dispatches his parents but leaves him largely unscathed. Wandering the forest primeval, Pete happens upon the title character, which he names Elliot after a lost puppy from his favorite picture book.
“Are you going to eat me?” asks Pete upon their first encounter. Except for occasional Rooby-Rooby-Roo-type vocalizations, the dragon doesn’t talk, letting cuddling and free rides on his back signify its good intentions. But Pete raises a good question: What does this creature eat? We never see it munch on as much as a daisy despite engaging in such calorie burning activities as flying in and out of cloud cover and battling back interlopers. A small point, perhaps, but for the kind of magic that the movie is reaching for to manifest itself fully, the details matter.
The story involves the discovery of Pete by the family of a kindly forest ranger played by Bryce Dallas Howard and of Elliot by an ambitious logger played by Star Trek Beyond‘s Karl Urban, who seems to be doing a riff on Gaston from Beauty and the Beast. There is a lovely face-off in the half-light of twilight between Elliot and the loggers trying to capture him, which along with a thrilling chase of Pete through the mill town shows off the cinematic imagination of director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints). Lowery also coaxes fine performances from his young actors, Oakes Fegley as Pete and Oona Laurence as Natalie, the girl who helps acclimate him to society by introducing him to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and long playing records. (They are among the many elements, along with cop cars straight out of The Blues Brothers, which suggest the modern day film’s heart remains in the late ‘70s.)
But one does wish that the film’s talented cast were given a bit more characterization on which to feast. The film also feels more interested in pushing through the machinations of its not terribly involving plot than developing the sense of wonder one craves in fables of this sort. Still, one cannot help but admire the sweetness of the film and the gentleness that is profoundly welcome following a summer of cinematic bombast. Nevertheless, while Pete’s Dragon does manage to take flight and occasionally soar, like the overgrown golden retriever at its center, it just can’t seem to stick the landing.