Published Aug 12, 2016To call a film like Pete's Dragon "simple" or "old-fashioned" could easily be interpreted as a slight against the adaptation of the forgotten 1977 Disney cartoon-meets-live action movie, but it's not; its lack of cynicism or any unnecessary flourishes to make the story more modern or hip is one of its most endearing qualities. Of course, the titular dragon may have undergone a significant makeover from his crudely animated origins, but no one's going to complain about that when they're too busy getting all attached to the uncannily life-like creation of technical wizardry.
The story has undergone a bit of a welcome overhaul as well, with the songs that were an essential part of the original being stripped entirely, even though the bare bones remain the same. When Pete (Oakes Fegley) loses his parents in a car crash and finds himself unscathed but alone in the woods, he looks as if he's about to become a casualty of the wild until a giant dragon suddenly appears and quite literally takes Pete under (or at least onto) his wing. Flash forward six years later and Pete and the dragon, now dubbed Elliot by Pete, have become the best of friends while living with each other in nature.
Meanwhile, the nearby logging community has been rife with legends of dragons in the woods for years. Forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) may have trouble believing it since she regularly patrols the woods, but her father Meacham (Robert Redford) can certainly tell you some stories. When Grace and her boyfriend Jack (Wes Bentley) find Pete in the woods, they bring him home to bond with Jack's daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence). Unfortunately, Jack's brother, Gavin (Karl Urban) discovers Elliot in the woods and has nefarious though decidedly vague plans on what to do with him.
It's all probably a little too thin to be stretched out over feature length, with the action unfolding rather slowly, but it gathers momentum and emotion as it proceeds. While Howard and Bentley have little to do besides being the attentive caregivers to Pete and defenders of Elliot that you'd expect, it's Redford who really shines in his supporting role. Because the beloved actor rarely even appears on screen anymore, it's exciting to see him take what could easily have been a generic wise grandfather role and imbue it with some genuine heart.
But the real star of the show here is Elliot, who blends in so seamlessly with the actors and scenery that it's easy to forget he's merely an impressive feat of CGI. With his expressive facial features and inexplicable ability to somehow understand the English language and become invisible whenever it's convenient, he comes across as a big lovable dog that has a tendency to occasionally blow snot all over unsuspecting parties. When he spreads his wings and takes flight with Pete in tow, it's an exhilarating spectacle made all the more magical in 3D.
Director David Lowery, who drew comparisons to Terrence Malick with his last film Ain't Them Bodies Saints and edited Shane Carruth's bizarre Upstream Color, may not seem like the most obvious choice for the material, but he does well here to ground the fantastical fable in reality and allow the plot to proceed so organically that events feel almost inevitable. It may not be quite enough to earn a place among the classics of the Disney canon, but it's a worthy entry full of wonder that never condescends to its audience.