The infectiously whimsy and adventurous Pete’s Dragon undergoes a polished millennial-style rebirth for today’s kiddies not fortunate enough to be alive when the 1977 live-action animated musical blueprint made its charming, impressionable impact for youngsters of all ages back in the day. The festive and frolicking Disney flourishes are applied to co-writer/director David Lowery’s re-imagination of an impish boy and his devoted dragon. There is an even balance of refreshing nostalgia and modern-day spryness and magical sentiment that hovers over this engaging family fable remake from the polyester period. Lowery (2013’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) and screenwriters Toby Halbrooks and Malcolm Marmorstein pack some vibrant punch of wonderment into this children’s tale of gentle mischievousness. Sure, the simplistic approach to the storytelling feels like a step-by-step progression experienced in a majority of child-friendly escapist entertainment. Still, Pete’s Dragon is steady in its gentle precision for homespun high jinks.
Whether appreciating this Disney classic from four decades ago or relishing in Lowery’s current contemplative spectacle one will agree that the heart and soul of this sweet and uplifting narrative remains true to the main factors involved: the runaway (now orphaned) boy Pete and his trusty creature companion Elliot. In fact, it is just as instrumental that the adult presence in Pete’s Dragon make an impacting impression as well because this exposition should cater to the delicate sensibilities in us all whether as a curious tyke or reflective grown-up.
Orphaned and alone, 10-year old Pete (Oakes Fegley) had become a wild child in the deep woods. What was looking pretty grim for Pete in terms of loneliness, abandonment and despair was soon cured when he ended up befriending a giant green furry high-flying dragon named Elliot. For the most part the imposing Elliot served as Pete’s surrogate parent while ensuring protection and friendship for the parent-less prepubescent. There is no question about the dependency that Pete and his dragon Elliot share in loving dependency. The scenic wooded haven serves as the treasured playground for the playful, nature-loving tandem.
Enter the father-daughter duo of Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) and Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard). Both strangely have an eerie connection to Pete’s and Elliot’s existence without realizing it. Meacham had been telling engagingly colorful stories to the local children about a mysterious dragon existing in the Northwest Pacific woods. As for Grace she happens to be employed as a Park Ranger for the site of the mentioned woods her father constantly references in his repetitive stories. Soon Grace will encounter the disheveled Pete who is more than willing to share his adventures of living in the thick woods with his massive dragon buddy Elliot. This all seems rather intriguing to Grace because Pete’s description of Elliot is curiously similar to the fictional monster that Meacham cites to the spellbound youngsters. Whatever the case may be regarding Pete and his personalized plight this is something that Grace must investigate.
Grace is not the only one who finds the wandering Jungle Book youthful clone intriguing. Both Grace’s fiance Jack (Wes Bentley) and 11-year old Natalie (Oona Laurence from “Southpaw”) are in awe of Pete as well. In any event, Grace and Natalie are determined to find out what lies beneath the surface with the boy and his behemoth sidekick dragon that recalls Meacham’s exaggerated tall tales.
Pete’s Dragon dutifully follows what amounts to be the on-going formula for escapist children’s storybook gems as recently told on the big screen. The reliable source of pathos and warmth wisdom stems from a vulnerable child in search of belonging especially when trying to locate, recognize, reunite or reminisce about the absence of parents. Thankfully, Pete’s Dragon is in formidable company with animated treasures such as Finding Dory, The BFG, Stranger Things and even the aforementioned Jungle Book that follows such a playbook. The realism behind the idyllic childhood is having that sturdy foundation of family and support especially in the impressionable stages of youthful innocence. Among other things Pete’s Dragon solidifies the magnitude of growing pains and a sense of isolation and quieted despair. This is an important message although embedded in the confines of an innocuous juvenile fantasy.
The young Fegley resourcefully carries the breezy heartfelt material on his capable little shoulders as the enchanting Pete. The adorable Laurence is equally effective as Natalie whose bonding with her imaginative partner-in-crime Pete is admirable. Elliot the dragon is nothing more than an overgrown affable beast that would make for an amusing act at a neighborhood children’s birthday party. Both Redford’s Meacham and Howard’s Grace are essential as the older elements bridging the mysteries surrounding the mischievous moptop and his humongous hairball confidante.
There is no need to critically slay Pete’s Dragon as the thrills and life lessons in resiliency should prove instrumental for the enthusiastic kiddie crowd watching from the sidelines.
Pete’s Dragon (2016)
Walt Disney Pictures
1 hr. 30 mins.
Starring: Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban
Directed by: David Lowery
MPAA Rating: PG
Genre: Children’s Fantasy/Sci-Fi/Action and Adventure
Critic’s rating: *** stars (out of 4 stars)
(c) Frank Ochieng (2016)