Disney has been on a tear of modernizing some of their most classic properties. Pete’s Dragon is the latest to receive the treatment, and it’s a mostly triumphant effort with no shortage of deep talent, including a pair of promising youngsters (Oona Laurence and Oakes Fegley).
In this version of the story, Pete ends up in the forest through tragic circumstances and his meet-cute with Elliot, the titular dragon, is one of the most bittersweet moments on screen this year. The new CGI Elliot is basically a giant, emotive, fuzzy dog with no shortage of mystical powers. Consequently, a couple of 27-year-olds left this screening with the fervent wish to befriend a dragon of our own.
After this meet cute we are introduced to a local legend about a dragon you can find deep in the forest. It’s told to a group of rapt children with charisma and unapologetic belief by Meacham (Robert Redford). The spell is broken by the appearance of Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a forest ranger who can’t help but contradict her old man, even as it is painfully obvious she gets her own reverence for the place from him. We follow Grace to the forest as she polices and meddles with the operations of local loggers — including her boyfriend, Jack (Wes Bentley) who is the head of the crew, and his brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), who is harboring some kind of fierce inferiority complex. The current spot marked for clearing creeps very near to Pete and Elliot’s idyllic hideaway and sets these two worlds on a course for collision.
We watch a trajectory that feels rather like it was inspired by what happens at the end of the classic animated Jungle Book when Mowgli is seduced into the world of man. Pete’s natural curiosity and innate craving for human affection finds him grappling with how to define his own needs and desires. It’s a subtle, but powerfully impactful arc that doubles as a metaphor for childhood and the loss of innocence.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford are on hand to help draw that narrative out of the neofantasy. Grace is a new look for Howard, a character who is pure kindness and empathy and whose emotions practically jump off the screen to embrace the viewer. As much fun as it is to see her do the sharp girl type, this is captivating too. Meanwhile, Redford is the grandfather of all of our dreams — kind and mischievous and sporting soft crinkles around his eyes as he laughs and smiles.
It’s just unfortunate that the antagonist in this story does them all an injustice by missing the mark. Pete’s Dragon is gorgeous — almost painfully so — it has a rich score, a good story and wonderful emotive acting from almost every corner. Then there’s Karl Urban, the film’s primary antagonist and ruiner of joy, who evidently did not get the memo that everyone else was working to create a polished product and not some throwaway kid flick only palatable for people who don’t yet recognize energetic overacting for what it is. He’s playing his bad guy tells as hard as Snidely Whiplash while everyone else is in the naturalistic realm. It’s jarring and distracting. Fortunately, the rest of the picture is sufficiently triumphant to overcome this missed mark.
Pete’s Dragon is a magical effort that captures the beauty of the world and the whimsy of childhood in equal measure. At the risk of sounding like a generic commercial blurb, the whole family really should find something to love here.