What’s a real dragon look like? Maybe a mash-up of children’s favorite animals? Like part dog, with a big sniffle-snuffle, rubbery nose? If it’s a forest dragon, it might be a tad greenish.
Maybe there’s some panther in its jaw line too, some cheetah spots, a little hyena about the ears. It might have vestigial lion traits, like an involuntary big-cat-like gallop (kind of adorable) that accompanies its furry wing flapping.
How does a real dragon sound? A lot like the megabass, magical musings of wonderment and innocence of “The Iron Giant,” crossed with the seismic purrs of a whale-sized feline (voiced by John Kassir).
What does a real dragon do? It might chase its tail and have jump-up, nosedive down, make fox-like moves. All of which might be fairly cute and adorable and not in a cloying sense.
Speaking of cute, Disney’s film brand has had a reputation for being too cutesy and overly saccharine since its inception. However, the company chalked up an instant children’s classic with the magical “Pete’s Dragon,” a live action remake of their forgotten 1977 musical. For kids and adults alike, it’s cute but not cutesy. While much that goes on the name of Disney today is surrounded by controversy, it’s probably safe to say this particular movie won’t have any deleterious effects on your kids.
Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a little boy on an adventure with his parents, driving through pine forests. He’s 4 years old. As his mother tells him, on an adventure, you need courage. And Pete’s the bravest boy she’s ever met.
He’s going to need all his courage, seeing as how deer sometimes jump in front of speeding cars. Before we know it, wee Pete is stranded, with both his parents dead. He’s in dire straits, all alone with his tiny backpack in a dark wood.
Malevolent, yellow-eyed wolves growl and circle. But something causes them to flee in terror, and Pete musters his courage to face whatever might eat him for dinner.
Meanwhile in Millhaven
Millhaven, a Pacific Northwest logging town full of manly lumberjacks, still harbors rumors of a Millwater dragon. Who’s talking this nonsense? That would be the local woodcarver, Mr. Meachum (Robert Redford). He claims he saw it once.
His red-haired forest ranger daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) only believes what she sees. She’s never seen any dragons. She doesn’t believe in them.
Six Years Later
It seems there’s a feral child out there in the huge Millhaven wilderness, looking like a Caucasian Mowgli. He’s a climber of trees, runner of rocks, forder of streams, and he has an enormous friend, who’s like a sibling to him. And sometimes also an ersatz parent. But foremost, a loyal pet.
This kind of pet is very, very fun, because you could go running off a high cliff with no parachute—just jump right off—and your pet could fly exactly under you, so you’d land in a pile of soft fur! But hang on tight for the barrel rolls!
The pet is named Elliot, and Elliot is full of surprises. Why don’t the lumberjacks know he’s there, since he’s really big? Because he has a supernatural capability similar to what the Predator (from the Arnold Schwarzenegger film) could do. It’s possible, but very, very difficult, to tell where he’s hiding.
The feral child and his enormous friend sleep in a cozy cave under the roots of a giant pine, festooned with child-sized forts and climbing ladders. Sometimes Elliot sleeps on his back and the boy sleeps on the big, furry belly-bed. And there’s much luxurious snoring!
And Then There Was a Girl
Enter Natalie, played by Oona Laurence, 2016’s child-actress “It girl” (she also appeared in “Bad Moms”). Laurence’s stock-in-trade is normally playing a precocious, high-strung, high-IQ, high-maintenance, badgering know-it-all, but here she’s a curious, brave, wonder-filled (and wonderful) companion to the feral boy. This is a meet-cute that’s allowed to be cute.
And Then the Forest Shrank
Now, these loggers, they get a little greedy and go tree-poaching, thanks to instigation by foreman Gavin (Karl Urban). They cut too deep into the forest. They find gigantic paw prints. “You ever seen a bear that big?”
Gavin’s the kind of pillaging guy who takes and takes, devours resources, and puts his finger and footprints on everything. Driving a muscled-up dually truck, he enjoys hunting, claiming ownership of stuff, and puffing his chest out.
He doesn’t believe what he can’t see either. But you can bet, if he does see it, he’s gonna wanna shoot it. Or own it. And puff his chest out. You can guess the rest of this story. Oh, by the way, Gavin’s brother Jack (Wes Bentley) owns the local sawmill, is engaged to Grace, and is also Natalie’s dad.
Seeing Is Believing
While seeing “Pete’s Dragon” is believing that wholesome Disney movie-fare for children started making a comeback, the more recent “Cruella” as well as tales from the Hollywood rumor-mill would seem to say otherwise. Disney appeared to be remaking its inventory—sprinkling magic dust on all of it (highly competent CGI) and taking artistic risks, like hiring relatively untested, newcomer directors for their vision. Showbiz is historically about the bottom line, and as if that weren’t enough to wax cynical about, most Americans now believe Hollywood to be inundated from top to bottom with pedophiles, but you can go ahead and safely cherry-pick “Pete’s Dragon” as harmless for young kids. Let’s hope there’s more where it came from.
There are wonderful performances: Laurence’s, as mentioned, and Howard’s, but young Fegley’s less-is-more, stoic wild-child performance stands above the rest. When the time comes for Pete to say goodbye to his dragon, I guarantee you there will not be a dry eye in the house.
The film’s singular weak spot is the underwritten role of Gavin. Yes, we know that kind of guy. That, “Isn’t she a beauty?” and, “It belongs to me!” kind of guy, but for some reason the performance stands out like a (slightly) sore thumb, which is usually the case when an actor hasn’t done his specificity homework. But Urban’s a serious A-list pro (he played Eomer in “Lord of the Rings”), so blame the newbie director. But, so, due to it not ringing entirely true, the character becomes the only aspect of the movie that’s unmagical. That said, Gavin’s necessary for the film’s secondary message, that feeling of, “These guys who exploit endangered species and deplete the earth! What the heck is wrong with them?”
The primary message? Ever notice how it’s generally the very old and the very young who understand that believing first can lead to seeing later? In the past, such an outlook was considered wise. You might not believe in dragons but your kids will and you’ll enjoy them believing it.
Director: David Lowery
Cast: Robert Redford, Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban
Running Time: 1 hours, 42 minutes
Release Date: Aug. 12, 2016
Rated 3.5 stars out of 5