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Pete's Dragon (2016)
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by Jay Seaver

"Fantastic things in these woods."
5 stars

A few years ago, a friend argued that a certain movie was not as good as it could be because it let the audience see its creatures right away rather than hiding them for a big reveal later, even though it wasn't about discovery. I was reminded of that when this new version of "Pete's Dragon" showed the dragon in the second or third scene, thinking that the kids that this movie was made for wouldn't have internalized those expectations based upon what used to be prohibitively expensive. That thought soon fled my mind, though - while the modern ability to put something fantastic on screen with relatively little restriction is a big part of what makes this film a delight, its big heart and the filmmakers' steady hands do even more to make this one of the best family films to come out in a year that has had plenty.

That first glimpse of the dragon comes after we're introduced to a five-year-old and his parents driving to a new home, though an accident leaves the boy on his own. Six years later, we hear a tale of a dragon from old man Meacham (Robert Redford), though his forest-ranger daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) has never seen such a thing in the woods. Grace is engaged to Jack (Wes Bentley), one of the brothers who owns the local sawmill, which causes some friction as Gavin (Karl Urban) tends to extend their logging operations a bit further than allowed. It's during one of these disputes that Jack's daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) finds Pete (Oakes Fegley), who tries to run when the adults take him to the hospital. He wants to get back to the only friend he has had for the past six years, and the dragon he calls Elliott is worried about what happened to his boy.

It's important that we not only see the dragon early, but hear of him from the perspective of Grace's quite sane-seeming father as opposed to some outcast who comes across as a nut or drink or the like. This take on the material, co-written and directed by David Lowery, does not seek to find adult sophistication through ambiguity and unreliable narrators, even if it does allow for a healthy skepticism. We get to know Elliott as a character, and he's a funny, likable creature often akin to a gigantic and loyal dog, but Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks, without hurting Elliott's individual playfulness and concern for Pete, quietly make him a symbol for wonder and awe. Meacham speaks of a sort of magic when describing his own youthful encounter with a dragon that is akin to spirituality but which is a more genuine sense of awe, not too different from the way everybody looks at Pete for having survived so long while so young. Gavin maybe can't see it that way at first, and it ties in to a quiet environmental message, where simple near-term practically is often more short-sighed and hollow than actively evil.

And yet, though he's a near-constant presence, Elliott is used rather sparingly compared to how many movies might feature him. There's really only one big action scene toward the end, and it's abbreviated, just long enough to pose the question of whether the dragon can learn to trust people after some have mistreated him, rather than a drawn-out scene of destruction. He's both a delightful character and visual effect, with an expressive face that suggests human and canine influences while being its own thing, and a fuzzy green body that can remind the audience of moss as much as fur.

The human characters are similarly straightforward but nicely played. That's especially true for the kids, with Oakes Fegley and Oona Laurence executing a nice push and pull between the boy who is scared but curious where human society is concerned and the girl who knows she's onto something exciting and unusual but attacks it like a bright kid integrating new stuff quickly. Bryce Dallas Howard creates a warm, friendly center for the rest of the cast, even if Wes Bentley is needed to form a buffer Bergen her Grace and Karl Urban's Gavin. Isiah Whitlock Jr. males a small role as the sheriff memorable, and then there's Robert Redford.

It's canny of Lowery not too overuse him, despite the temptation; Meacham telling kids the story of a dragon early on acts as a balm for the tragedy the audience has just seen, but too much laid-back neighborhood grandpa could make things too quiet, so the movie focuses on the younger characters until they really need that sort of reassurance, which lines up nicely with when folks in the audience start wondering if they're going to see that older guy they really liked again. That early scene helps set the tone for a lot of the movie, with its patient woodcarving serving as a backdrop to a community that focuses more on neighborhood than electronic connections, and his narration blends well with music that sounds traditional and like honest folk without being ostentatiously stripped down. Lowery uses his small-town and wooded settings the same way, making them feel familiar, simple, and classic without crossing the line to nostalgia. He and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli don't go for a lot of flash - there's only one or two scenes that say "look at that" or are obviously built for 3D, but the way they shoot the forest is especially nice, managing to capture the scale that would allow a dragon to hide there but also making it a playground that doesn't entirely swallow kids up.

I have no idea how this version of "Pete's Dragon" compares to the version Disney made nearly forty years ago, although it seems much more its own thing than many of the other remakes of their animated features that they've been putting out lately. That's to its credit; it manages to feel classic rather than updated and has appeal well beyond what done memories parents might have of the original, while being warm and smart enough for everyone from very young children to childless adults to enjoy it.

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originally posted: 08/24/16 12:45:52
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User Comments

5/19/17 Dr.Lao Disney worked very hard to remove everything remotely charming from the original for this 1 stars
10/27/16 Bob Dog Its heart's in the right place, but movie is dull. 2 stars
8/25/16 Matt This movie sucks so bad, I threw up after watching it. 1 stars
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  12-Aug-2016 (PG)
  DVD: 29-Nov-2016


  DVD: 29-Nov-2016

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