Looking for poetry in a live-action family film is usually about as futile as hunting for dragons in your backyard; the vast majority of them wager on the indiscriminate tastes of kids and their dutiful chaperons. But Pete’s Dragon has poetry in spades. It’s right there in the hushed beauty of its prologue, in which a newly parentless boy—the lone survivor of a car crash in the deep Pacific Northwest—wanders off the road and into the mysterious twilight of the surrounding woods. From the foliage emerges a towering wonder, a creature with expressive feline features, the wingspan of an airliner, and green fur so photorealistic that the viewer can practically run its fingers through each errant strand. It’s a kind of platonic love at first sight between the beast and the boy, and the latter takes one last glance back at civilization before embracing his new life as a wild thing. Against the landscape of all-ages entertainment, a moment of such strange power stands out as starkly as a giant, fire-breathing monster.
The Mouse House has been on a serious reboot kick these past few years, churning out lavish new takes on Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and The Jungle Book, with more to come. But the studio had to reach pretty far into its vault to dust off Pete’s Dragon, a largely (and justly) forgotten 1977 musical whose sole claim to fame is the once-state-of-the-art practice of integrating a cartoon character into a live-action world. This new Pete’s Dragon preserves the bond of friendship between an orphan and a gentle giant who can go invisible on cue, but that’s about all it preserves from the crummy original. Replacing the musical numbers with a soundtrack of melancholic folk, the film overhauls its source material into a soulful recovery fable for kids, establishing in the process that bad movies—the kind that squander their premises—are much more ripe for remaking than good ones.
Six years after the accident that claimed his folks, Pete (Oakes Fegley) has gone full Mowgli, surviving in the wilderness thanks to the assistance of his mighty dragon friend, who he’s named Elliot. But when a deforestation crew encroaches upon his woodland paradise, Pete is forced into a nearby lumber town, where he stays with concerned forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), her boyfriend Jack (Wes Bentley), and his daughter Natalie (Southpaw’s Oona Laurence). Pete’s awfully adjusted and verbal for a kid who’s had no human contact for half his life. His biggest quirk is constant mentions of his “imaginary” friend Elliot—a folkloric legend that only Grace’s father (Robert Redford, lending the film some real aging-star dignity) seems to believe in. But even the power of invisibility can’t keep a dragon hidden forever…
That’s about it, plotwise. Pete’s Dragon bucks current trends in locomotive kiddie fare by keeping the pace leisurely (instead of manic) and the story minimal (instead of overstuffed). There’s no nattering comic relief, and no real villains (Karl Urban, as Jack’s hotheaded lumberjack brother, is more misguided than malicious). Chalk up the uncommon maturity to an unlikely hire: writer-director David Lowery, whose last feature was the dreamily uneventful outlaw saga Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. Granted the keys to the Disney castle, Lowery crafts a kind of family-friendly hang-out movie, reveling in wordless early scenes of Pete and Elliot frolicking across their verdant playground, and locating as much magic in Redford’s loquacious trips down memory lane as he does in the high-flying dragon spectacle. This is also, it must be said, a lovely movie to just gawk at; it has a real appreciation for the untouched beauty of nature, not to mention a number of striking images, including a bird’s-eye view of Elliot sprawled across the bed of a semi truck speeding down the highway.
There were some who reached for Robert Altman comparisons when writing about Lowery’s last movie, even as the film’s affectations—whispery voice-over, shots of grass swaying in the wind—more clearly evoked Terrence Malick. If Saints was his McCabe & Mrs. Miller, then this is his Popeye: less a work-for-hire gig than a genuine attempt to invest the children’s picture with some flavor, some directorial personality. Truth be told, Pete’s Dragon could probably stand to be a little livelier; there are times when it almost threatens to float away on the Northwest breeze, like a puff of smoke from Elliot’s enormous nostrils. But that’s a small price to pay for the Spielbergian pathos Lowery wrings—not just from his collection of broken and reconstructed families (Disney’s graveyard of dead parents earns a few new tombstones), but from the tender connection he forges between a child actor and a special effect. Speaking of Elliot: Who but Disney could hit that sweet spot between majestic, otherworldly creature and plush doll coming to a Christmas stocking near you?