The word you’re looking for is “sincerity.” It’ll be on the tip of your tongue from the opening shots of “Pete’s Dragon,” a warm, wistful, and wholly wonderful remake of a 1977 Disney musical that today’s kids have never heard of and yesterday’s kids have long since forgotten. That word, baked into every aspect of this rewarding live-action fable, will be staring you in the face as the film’s powerful prologue careens from adventure to tragedy and back again. It may have been ushered into production on the dying fumes of brand recognition, but — from that exhaust — director David Lowery has crafted something that feels like it comes from the heart. There are remakes, and then there are remakes, and “sincerity,” above all else, is what most definitely makes this one of the latter.
Between “Cinderella,” “The Jungle Book,” and next year’s “Beauty and the Beast,” it’s clear that Disney believes that CG is a tool capable of reinventing the most familiar stories in their stable, and box office receipts suggest that audiences seem to agree. But “Pete’s Dragon,” which could easily have stank of greed and desperation, has the advantage of being based on a story that isn’t set in stone. There’s wiggle room here, room to play, and Disney has made the most of it.
“We’re going an adventure,” announces a voice from the passenger seat, and the movie is quick to make good on that promise. Pete is four years old, and his parents are driving him to their new home, which is nestled somewhere deep in the woods of the Pacific Northwest (here played by New Zealand). Pete’s mom calms his nerves by assuring her son that he’s “the bravest little boy she’s ever met.” He’s going to have to be, as a deer will soon dart out in front of the car, resulting in a (sensitively filmed) car crash that orphans Pete and leaves him for dead in the forest. Fortunately for our young hero, he’s not the only orphan in these parts.
He’s not alone for five minutes before he meets a huge, eminently huggable dragon named Elliot, who — in stark contrast with how titular CG characters are typically introduced — immediately steps out of the shadows and reveals himself. A furry green T-Rex with expressive eyes and a wet snout, Elliot acts like a dog (he even chases his own tail) and groans like one of the talking trees in “The Lord of the Rings.” Best of all, he can camouflage himself at will, his selective invisibility helping to blur the line between reality and imagination.
The brunt of the story is set six years later, after Pete (now played by Oakes Fegley) and Elliot (voiced by The Crypt-Keeper himself, John Kassir) have already forged a deep friendship. But “friendship” doesn’t quite do justice to their dynamic — Elliot is alternately Pete’s pet, his brother, and his entire surrogate family. Alas, idylls are made to be lost, and it’s only a matter of time before someone stumbles across the life that Pete and Elliot have made for themselves. That someone happens to be Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), a kindly forest ranger whose father (Robert Redford) swears he saw a dragon when he was younger, and whose boyfriend, Jack (Wes Bentley), owns the lumber mill that’s shrinking the woods with every day.
Lowery is hardly the only filmmaker in recent years who’s been plucked from the indie circuit and handed the helm of a blockbuster, but “Pete’s Dragon” is one of the few cases in which it doesn’t feel as though a minor leaguer was called up to the big leagues in order to act like a stooge for the studio. There may be individual shots in this movie that cost more than the director’s entire pre-existing output, but make no mistake: This is a David Lowery movie — a movie imbued with the same tactile nature and uniquely American flair for myth-making that characterized his Sundance breakthrough, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.”
You can feel it in Fegley’s terrifically muted performance, which blends a child’s vulnerability with an auteur’s trust in his audience (and builds confidence that he’s been well-cast as one of the leads in Todd Haynes’ forthcoming “Wonderstruck”). You can see it in the patience with which the camera watches Pete and Elliot pal around in the forest, and in the earnest sense of wonder with which it hangs on Redford’s every word. You can hear it in the handclaps that pepper the spirited score by Lowery’s long-time collaborator Daniel Hart, and in the Leonard Cohen song that similarly garnishes the movie with a human touch while also helping to galvanize the period setting (yes, a Leonard Cohen song in a Disney movie).
Best of all, you can feel it in the gentle rhythms of the script that Lowery co-wrote with Toby Halbrooks (a producer on such films as “Listen Up Philip” and “Upstream Color”), which keeps the story to a sensible scale and works subtle miracles with its characters — Grace’s maternal frustrations are never explicitly discussed, but you still feel how she aches to be the mother her own mom never got the chance to become. Capturing the wonder of “E.T.” without capitulating to the iconography of the Amblin classics, “Pete’s Dragon” is nevertheless a better, more nuanced grasp on the value of family than it does on the virtues of imagination. The film may be set in the ’70s, but it delicately expresses a very modern appreciation of what families look like, of how they come in all shapes and sizes, and require nothing more than a mutual faith that they’re real.
Ironically, the film’s one glaring weakness can be traced to a tenuous family connection. Jack, mercifully, isn’t made into an antagonist, but his less disciplined brother Gavin (Karl Urban, gregarious as always) isn’t spared the same fate. Gavin never sinks into cartoon villainy or becomes a lazy symbol of corporate deforestation, but his lust to capture Elliot (and be known as the guy who bagged the dragon) comes out of nowhere, and feels borrowed from a more generic version of this story. His character — or at least his motivation — is the only thing in this movie that doesn’t feel sincere, and that casts a dark shadow on the story during its climactic moments.
On the other hand, Gavin does get to point down a highway and shout “Follow that dragon!,” so maybe his role is worth it in the end. It’s a good moral, and one that “Pete’s Dragon” sells with conviction. Here is a movie that says we never lose our imagination so long as we believe in each other, a movie that was only made possible because a huge corporation dared to put that same idea into practice.
“Pete’s Dragon” opens in theaters on August 5th.
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