“Pete’s Dragon” is a warm cup of cocoa and a hug from Robert Redford at the end of the summer.
It plays like a lost movie from Carroll Ballard (“The Black Stallion,” “Duma”) that Hollywood released by mistake, not realizing that it wasn’t filled with smart-mouthed kids and bodily function jokes. They don’t make mainstream movies like this anymore. So go see this one.
The worst thing you can say about “Pete’s Dragon” is that although it is filled with a sense of magic, it doesn’t have the soaring set pieces or excitement-filled climax to please audiences that aren’t in touch with their inner child. Moviegoers on the younger side of adulthood especially, who don’t remember that all kid movies used to be like this, might find it slow.
But the sense of place is real, and the emotional beats are well earned. The dragon is a character, not just a spectacle. Can you imagine what a “Transformers” or “Smurfs” movie would look like if all the special effects were removed? “Pete’s Dragon” would still be a good film.
It’s a fairly radical reboot of the 1977 animated film “Pete’s Dragon,” much like this year’s equally pleasing early summer “child raised by animals in the woods” bookend, “The Jungle Book.” The music and goofball elements are all but removed in both movies, the tone is more serious and the stakes more real.“Pete’s Dragon” begins with a small child witnessing his parents’ death, and thoughtfully explores his actions and anxieties after he spends six years away from society. Pete finds a surrogate family in forest ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), her father (Redford) and a stepdaughter who is the orphan’s age. They live in a Pacific Northwest town, idyllic except for the logging interests, led by men with a conquering spirit that counterpoints the Meachams’ preservation beliefs.
David Lowery, an indie film stalwart, co-writes and directs “Pete’s Dragon” with subtle graces that are hard to find in family movies with $50 million budgets and worldwide marketing campaigns. The soundtrack is roots music made by adults, not some new Disney band. Even after watching the film, it’s hard to pinpoint the era when the events take place. The 1980s? The year 2016? In a parallel universe with elements of both?
I’m imagining Lowery and his producers fighting tooth and nail as they turned in each daily, or the studio executives getting a visit from the ticked-off ghost of Walt Disney during production. It’s a film made by confident people thinking 50 years down the line, knowing that quality filmmaking will have value in the vault, even if it doesn’t break records on opening weekend.