Magical fluff

“As long as the dragon’s name isn’t Puff, we’re good.”

“As long as the dragon’s name isn’t Puff, we’re good.”

Rated 4.0

The Disney film brand has been mired in an existential identity crisis of late, obsessed with sequels and remakes but fixated on re-examining traditional roles and institutional values. This nod to political correctness is presumably well-intentioned but also weirdly noncommittal, and as numerous critics have pointed out, the latest Disney animated feature Zootopia is so vague in its predator-prey symbolism that it could be read as both a rebuke to racial prejudice and a backward validation of it.

All that self-conscious rebranding leaves little room for old-fashioned Disney magic, and up until this year, the studio’s spate of live-action remakes of animated chestnuts has proved a dry well of pixie dust. Alice in Wonderland and Maleficent were unwatchable, and while the photorealistic technical achievements of Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book were dazzling enough to put the entire Disney catalog into play for remakes, the film lacked a certain innocence and heart.

That’s why it’s almost shocking that director and co-writer David Lowery’s heartfelt and genuinely magical Pete’s Dragon carries the Disney label. There is such a purity of vision to this thing, such a warm storybook vibe, and such a scarcity of the usual problems that befall contemporary family entertainment (e.g., unfocused narratives, self-aware cynicism, scatological humor, message-spewing didacticism), that it feels like the film was made in secret.

The success of Lowery’s remake is even more shocking in that Don Chaffey’s 1977 original is hardly a beloved classic, and today plays as a largely lamentable and morally indefensible footnote in the Disney canon (at one point, Mickey Rooney chugs stolen beer while his onscreen daughter gets groped by drunks, enough said), with only trace amounts of Disney magic holding it together.

Lowery and co-screenwriter Toby Halbrooks move the action from a New England fishing town to a Pacific Northwest logging town (although the forest scenes were shot in New Zealand), and transform the orphan protagonist Pete (Oakes Fegley) from a fugitive boy slave into a wild child. The antagonists are loggers, but like everything else here, the eco messages are rendered with a refreshingly light touch.

Unfortunately, the human performances from Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban and Robert Redford are forgettable (although after this film and Lamb, it wouldn’t shock me if child actress Oona Laurence is a household name someday), but Elliott the dragon is so magnificently realized that it hardly matters. Instead of scales, the dog-like Elliott is given plush doll fur, and while he’s more nimble in flight than his animated 1977 counterpart, his crash landings are still hilariously clumsy.

Pete’s Dragon is fluff, but it’s lovely fluff, with nonsyrupy emotional payoffs and a number of beautiful shots. There was little in Lowery’s interesting young career (he edited Upstream Color, produced Listen Up Philip and directed Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) to suggest that he could summon that old Disney magic, but Pete’s Dragon is his proof.