A boy, a dragon and a fantastic summer adventure
For me, Pete’s Dragon is one of the high points of this summer’s movies, a pleasant surprise at the very least, and a deeply satisfying one in several respects.
One of the surprises is that, while it’s a Disney product, a “remake” of the studio’s 1977 film of the same name, Pete’s Dragon never descends to the level of mere “Disney-fied” entertainment. It’s rated PG, but its blend of drama, comedy and fantasy is fresh, expansive and forthright throughout.
The Pete of the story is a small boy (played by Oakes Fegley) who is orphaned while traveling on “an adventure” with his parents in mountain wilderness. We quickly learn that he survives for several years without human contact, his only companionship coming from a not unfriendly dragon, a legend in the region but rarely sighted. Eventually, both the boy and the dragon become objects of sympathetic and problematical attention from a forest ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and her wilderness-loving family.
The devotion of the ranger and her father (Robert Redford) to the natural world signals some of the film’s main themes. But the Redford character is both an outdoorsman and a spinner of yarns and tall tales, and storytelling and the power of myth and imagination are also central to the film’s dramatic concerns.
The dragon, of course, is crucial to all that. The film envisions him both as a physical being and as a mysterious and evanescent presence hovering in the half-light of the deep woods. Pete calls him “Elliot,” which just happens to be the name of the little lost boy in the storybook that Pete carries as a kind of memento of his pre-wilderness, pre-dragon life.
The dragon, a fine CGI creation, comes across as one of the film’s most distinctive characters. He’s a magical and mostly benevolent monster, and he’s also a kind of giant sidekick for Pete. He looks like a dragon, a great green beast with wings, who at times moves with a panther-like grace. But just as often, if not more, he’s prone to the pratfalls of a goofy, oversized cartoon dog.
Writer-director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) gets touching, shrewdly understated performances out of all of his performers, live and otherwise. Some of the best moments in Pete’s Dragon arise from exquisitely nuanced close-ups of the key players reacting wordlessly to something they’ve just heard from one of the other characters.
When Grace asks Pete where he last saw his mother, he answers, “On an adventure,” and the expression on her face seems to reflect everything, the beauty and terror, that Pete’s answer embodies in the film as a whole. Similarly, the Redford character’s modest smile when confronted with skepticism about the mystical aspects of his stories. It’s a patient smile, kindly and welcoming in ways that neither condescend nor pass judgment, still open to the possibility that all involved may learn more in days to come. It’s a long way from the Sundance Kid, but it’s very close to the heart of this film.