One might get a feeling of déjà vu from Disney’s recent family-friendly fare—and not just because many of the films are remakes; most of them have followed the same basis template, despite external differences. “The Jungle Book” was a flamboyantly CGI extravaganza about an orphaned boy trying to survive against a determined predator with the help of animal friends in the wild. “The BFG” followed an orphan girl working together with a nice giant to foil the fellow’s kidnapping (and carnivorous) colleagues. And now the studio’s re-thinking of their 1977 musical recasts the tale of a boy lost in the forest but protected by its resident dragon as a sweet, warmhearted fable of family values in which the humans inching ever closer to them are the threat to their joyous camaraderie.
The new “Pete’s Dragon” is more successful than either of the two bigger, more opulent films, though, because its vision is simpler and more direct. To be sure, it boasts a CGI critter—one that seems modeled on the white beastie Falcor of “The Neverending Story” rather than the conventionally scaly variety of dragon—that’s a visual marvel, not only amusingly ungainly in its motions but extraordinarily expressive in terms of facial movement. And it borrows much of its spirit from Spielberg (the story is, after all, basically “E.T.” without the outer-space component)—a debt made all the more apparent by the soaring, inspirational tones of Daniel Hart’s score, which sounds like John Williams on steroids.
Why, then, is this admittedly derivative movie—not just of its titular predecessor but of so many intervening pictures—a winner? The answer is that it’s not merely a throwback (and one that, in its production design by Jade Healy and costumes by Amanda Neale, opts for a timeless quality), but one that recaptures the endearing qualities with which the best of its models won over audiences. Its ability to do so is largely the work of David Lowery, whose previous films (“St. Nick,” “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) were very low-budget efforts with a strong streak of poetry, and he manages to carry over his highly personal sensibility to this far more elaborate effort. “Pete’s Dragon” may have a good deal in common thematically with other movies, including Disney’s two other 2016 ones, but it avoids a cookie-cutter feel. As a result some might think it deficient, lacking the bombast that most blockbusters nowadays wear like a badge of honor and use to attract big audiences. In reality, however, its sense of decorum is a welcome change. Whether youngsters accustomed to more frantic, frenzied fare can still be charmed by something warmer and gentler is an open question—but one hopes they will.
Not that Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks are afraid of dark moments. The film begins with one of them, as young Pete (Levi Alexander) loses both of his parents when their car crashes during a drive through a remote area of the Pacific Northwest. Only he survives, and wandering into the woods he’s befriended by the dragon, who shoos away the wolves threatening the boy and whisks him off to safety—and companionship. Six years later Pete (now Oakes Fegley) has become a modern Mowgli, living happily with the pal he calls, after the dog in the children’s book that remains his only link to the past, Elliot. Elliot, in fact acts pretty much like a big mutt, despite the wings that enable him to fly, though not terribly gracefully (the landings being especially clumsy), and the ability to turn invisible.
But the pair’s idyllic existence is imperiled by encroaching loggers, headed by two brothers, the more restrained Jack (Wes Bentley) and volatile Gavin (Karl Urban) The latter, pressing deeper and deeper into the forest, comes upon their stomping ground and sets his sights on hunting down and capturing Elliot. At the same time forest ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), Jack’s fiancée, and Natalie (Oona Laurence), Jack’s eleven-year old daughter, discover Pete and bring him home to their house in Millhaven. Elliot tracks him there but sorrowfully goes back to the forest after seeing that the boy has found a human family. When Pete describes his erstwhile companion as a dragon, however, Grace contacts her father (Robert Redford), the only person who ever glimpsed him before, and he joins Pete, Grace and Natalie to find him again. Unfortunately, they’re trailed by Gavin and his men, who capture the critter. The last act, of course, revolves around efforts to free Elliot, as well as the question of where Pete and his dragon will ultimately wind up.
This scenario clearly breaks no new ground, but it’s the manner of telling, not the plot, that’s important here. Lowery treats the story with a cheery, almost sedate tastefulness, dropping in offhanded humorous moments whenever possible. He encourages low-key performances as well, with only Urban, the villain of the piece, going into manic mode. While Howard and Bentley are both a bit bland, youngsters Fegley and Laurence are both likable, and Redford lends his grizzled authority to lines about magic that might well have sounded hollow if delivered by somebody else. The look of the film is rather subdued as well; Bojan Bazelli’s cinematography luxuriates in the New Zealand locations, but in mostly dusky, green-brown tones (apart from the sweeping helicopter shots depicting Elliot in flight), and as a result the darkening effect of 3D isn’t quite as harmful here as it is in most brighter-colored films.
“Pete’s Dragon” is somewhat of an anomaly among today’s big-budget studio offerings: an expensive film that retains the feel of a personal one, something that’s hand-crafted rather than coming off the assembly line. Though it takes advantage of modern technology, Lowery’s approach takes one back to the glory days of Disney live-action pictures—one can sense the influence of “Old Yeller” as well as “E.T.” in it. Whether that will speak to today’s kids is an open question. If it doesn’t, it will be their loss.