Magic Monster

Pete's Dragon is a reboot with an infectious spirit

click to enlarge Pete and his dragon.
Pete and his dragon.

I suppose this new Pete's Dragon falls under the umbrella of Disney's ongoing project to produce live-action remakes of all of its animated features. The 1977 film was mostly live-action, of course, except for the key element of the mischievous giant reptile itself, which was really cartoonish. The opportunity for a dragon do-over in the era of lifelike CGI must have been irresistible.

And this new dragon — again called Elliot — is a delight and a marvel: a sweet-faced creature of green fur and exuberant spirit, he may be monstrously enormous, but there's little of the monster about him. He's more like a really big mutt of a dog. And he loves his boy — orphaned, abandoned Pete (newcomer Oakes Fegley), who's about 10 years old and lives a Mowgli-like existence in the forests of the Pacific Northwest.

Indeed, this new Pete's Dragon has more in common with Disney's recent Jungle Book remake than it does with the 1977 original — this one is set in the 1980s, not the turn of the 20th century, and it's no longer a musical — and even more in common with E.T., with its tale of a lonely little boy attempting to protect his secret fantastical friend from adults who would do him harm.

Director and cowriter (with Toby Halbrooks) David Lowery's previous features are decidedly on the arthouse end of the spectrum. So I wonder if a conscious decision to go very much in the other direction — toward simple, family-oriented entertainment — is what led to the gentle mildness of Pete's Dragon; at times, the movie even drifts into dullness.

There's certainly little of the frenetic, colorful action that characterizes many movies aimed at kids these days: this is more like a pleasant walk in the redwood forest where Pete and Elliot live than a rollicking adventure with them. There's surprisingly little in the way of drama, too: when park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) discovers Pete living in the woods — where he's been alone (except for Elliot) for six years, after an outing with his parents to the middle of nowhere ended in a car wreck that killed them — it's easier than we might expect for her to get Pete to come back to civilization.

I often felt, in the midst of the movie, that it wasn't enough of anything: not scary enough, not funny enough. But its sereneness and warm heart is infectious, and even as it tells a story that feels familiar, it avoids the sort of clichés that might have rendered it tiresome: the character of Gavin, a hunter who plans to capture Elliot, turns out not to be quite as villainous as he could have been, for one.

In the end, I found that the mildness of the film had fooled me, and that some big feeling had snuck up on me and left me in happy tears. The magic of Pete's Dragon may be understated, but it's also soft and clean and lovely.♦

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    Maryann Johanson