Remember Disney's original 1977 Pete's Dragon, a live-action/animated feature set in the American Northeast? Be aware that this reboot is similar in name only, except for the boy and his dragon part. For instance, this one is set in the American Northwest. See? Different. Also, the dragon is CGI this time, so everything looks much more realistic.
Pete's Dragon is a nice little Disney film, and my use of the words “nice” and “little” is in no way intended to be dismissive. Director David Lowrey (Ain't Them Bodies Saints) avoids the flashy business that usually comes with this kind of feature. Yes, we see the boy riding on the dragon while he flies over the forest. Of course we see the wonder on the faces of people that see the creature. But it's presented in a matter-of-fact way. I like that.
The tale, set in a logging town called Millhaven, begins with tragedy. Four-year-old Pete is enjoying a drive with his parents when a deer runs out of the woods and into the path of the car, leading to a deadly accident. Lowrey follows the accident from the inside of the car, focusing on the boy securely held in his car seat as the vehicle tumbles and tumbles. We finally witness the wrecked car in the forest.
Lowrey manages to present the accident tastefully – you never see the parents after the collision – while being definitive about their fates. It's a drag that so many parents die in Disney films, but at least it's well handled here.
The child is rescued by a giant dragon that sort of looks like the flying dog from The Neverending Story. He has wings that could not possibly hold his weight (it always bugs me when movie characters sport wings too small to do their job, but I doubt it bothers many other people, so having acknowledged my discontent I now let it go), and a heart that can easily support his new friend.
Cut to six years later. Pete (now played by Oakes Fegley) and his dragon pal Elliot (named after a character in Pete's favorite book) fly around the tall trees and enjoy the good life, until he is discovered by forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). Pete starts getting chummy with the two. He even warms to Grace's companion Jack (Wes Bentley), owner of a local sawmill.
Alas, trouble's a brewing. Jack's ambitious brother Gavin (Star Trek's Karl Urban) has heard about Elliot and pulled together a few coworkers to capture him (apparently Gavin never watched King Kong). What else to tell you … Robert Redford turns up periodically as a kindly wood carver who has kept alive the legend of dragons in the American Northwest.
That's the story, more or less. There's a relatively exciting finish, of course, but you can easily figure out what it will be. And it really doesn't matter. Unassuming movies like Pete's Dragon aren't about plot points or character shadings, they're about places where magic stays alive.
For kids, Pete's Dragon is an entertaining flick with exciting and/or funny set pieces, and characters generic enough to relate to. For adults, it's a visit to a community where belief isn't mocked – it's verified.
Director Lowrey's decision to create a lo-fi atmosphere is key to its accessibility. Had the flight scenes been presented with a John Williams style score and swirling cameras, the movie would have been just another summer spectacle, something to behold from a distance.
But Lowrey's creation is approachable. It feels like it was made for TV, and I mean that in a good way. After the theatrical run, it will live a long, happy life on your home screens, where it will be just the right size, unlike other Disney re-imaginings, like The Jungle Book, which are too epic to invite frequent repeat viewings.
The downside is that the film drags in spots, particularly the three (three!) scenes where characters drive and reflect while an indie rock tune plays.
August is traditionally the month where studios dump the movies they thought couldn't cut it in the competitive summer season. In the case of Pete's Dragon, the August release will likely lower audience expectations just enough so they can best enjoy the pleasures of this engaging, unassuming story.