David Lowery has crafted a truly heartwarming children’s adventure with Disney’s latest iteration of Pete’s Dragon. While it lacks The Jungle Book’s visual innovation from earlier this year, it’s impossible to deny how refreshing it is to watch a tentpole summer movie that simplifies conflict to core human values rather than incredulous global stakes. Lowery, who directed the poignant Western indie Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, finds inspiration in Spielberg’s affinity for familial fantasy drama. Focusing largely on the pivotal relationships that come to define unconditional love between child and parent, scribes Lowery and Toby Halbrooks recover the wonders of a childhood lost for millions of adults who’ve all but forgotten their precious past. Pete’s Dragon is Disney’s purest tear-jerker yet among its recent live-action reboots, so unapologetically sentimental that viewers will walk away enveloped in glowing goodness. More enthralling than Steven Spielberg’s dull BFG and more emotionally accessible than Jeff Nichols’s Spielberg-lite Midnight Special, this is the only film from 2016 that comes closest to matching the spirit of said iconic director. This doesn’t imply the magical whimsy of Malcolm Marmorstein’s original 1977 screenplay is lost – this just means sobbing has replaced singing, and kids are all the stronger for it.
In the quiet Pacific Northwest town of Millhaven, legend has it that a giant dragon resides in the surrounding forest. The only evidence of its existence is a story relayed by an unreliable source, Mr. Meachum (Robert Redford), who comes off like the old geezer who can’t wait to talk your ear off because he has nothing better to do with his time. His daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), is skeptical of her father’s seemingly tall tale because she has spent most of her life roaming the forest without ever coming across such a creature. And yet, Grace’s career as a forest ranger seems more intentional than merely preserving the sanctity of Millhaven’s flora and fauna. The huge divide in belief naturally strains the pair’s father-daughter bond, but soon all is reassessed upon the recovery of a mysterious 10-year-old boy thought to have disappeared six years prior.
Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a survivor of a fatal car accident in the late-1970s that robs him of his parents. With his book and mighty courage in tow, Pete enters the forest and stumbles into an enormous dragon that looks more cuddlesome than life-threatening. Naming him after the dog in his favorite book, Pete forges a powerful connection with Elliott that ensures his survival for the next six years…that is until he encounters strangers who look and behave uncannily similar to his late mom and dad. Reluctant to abandon Elliott and pave a foreign life that offers none of the freedoms the forest guarantees him, Pete makes every attempt to distance himself from Millhaven and his “kidnappers”: Grace, fiance Jack (Wes Bentley), and Jack’s fearless yet wholly empathetic daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence). Yet the more time Pete spends in the protective custody of this family — pending “Social Services'” intervention, of course — the more accustomed to their love he becomes. Thanks to the dastardly arrogance of Jack’s fellow lumberjack and brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), Elliott’s existence in fiction threatens to become fact, leading Pete to the realization that he can’t have the best of both worlds. In order to ensure Elliott’s safety, Pete must either abandon the lovable monster who plucked him from the wake of tragedy or leave behind a family better suited to the needs of a child.
The biggest threat that Pete and Elliott face is xenophobia, stemmed from a traditional community that views any hint of change or disruption as an extreme affront to their way of life. The film’s penultimate sequence hits closer to home than you might expect, involving innocent parties thought to be assailants, bred from the social enemy that is miscommunication. Intentionally incorporating police officers, this particular scene sheds a disturbing light on how quickly violence can escalate if proper measures aren’t taken first. Like Zootopia, Disney is firm in its continual stance of being politically relevant and socially responsible without overt finger-wagging, which actually resonates more with kids since they’re shown injustice through the eyes of their beloved movie heroes.
The principal cast is every bit as wholesomely lovable as expected, though like The Jungle Book, I’m still not totally convinced that its main lead was the right casting choice. When acting opposite the naturalistic and dynamic Oona Laurence, Oakes Fegley’s feisty moodiness tends to feel a tad one-note. What’s missing is Pete’s transformative maturity given all that has transpired by film’s end, though Lowery and Halbrooks at least don’t skimp out on Bryce Dallas Howard’s far more interesting Grace. Howard is able to find a comfortable medium exuding maternal softness and relatable cynicism that effortlessly latches adult viewers to her cause. What’s so spectacular about Howard as an actress is that her commitment to nailing emotion never seems forced and is amplified tenfold upon execution. We grieve at the thought of Grace losing Pete, not because we feel her life is less fulfilling without a child to rear, but because she’s formed an unprecedented bond that defies biological ties and has blossomed into requited love. Pete needs Grace to move forward just as much as Grace needs Pete to help rekindle her faith in the unimaginable.
Bojan Bazelli’s majestic cinematography gives Millhaven a European grandeur that’s appropriately medieval in feel. Composer Daniel Hart rouses us with gorgeous compositions that ring the bell for our tear ducts to open. And narrator Robert Redford, who also plays the eccentric yet resolute Mr. Meachum, appears right at home overseeing the foils and triumphs of a generation too quick to turn to science for societal predicaments instead of each other. Pete’s Dragon has an old-school gait that nonetheless surprises us with progressive undertones far ahead of its 80’s Reagan conservativism. If only other studios could follow in Disney’s footsteps when depicting a bygone era for 21st century minds. Disney’s Pete’s Dragon may seem simple in construction, and even minimal by fantasy adventure standards, but it flows with such benevolent confidence that you’re simply compelled to respect it. Disney’s newest reboot hits theaters nationwide this weekend beginning Friday, August 12th, so please be sure to surrender to its warm embrace. You’ll find the film’s trailer below!