The Disney family picture Pete’s Dragon lumbers right up to the border of cloying, but doesn’t tip over. After a fast, cruel opening — car trip, beatific mom beaming at adorable 5-year-old, hideous crash — the little boy, Pete, wanders into a deep forest and is saved from wolves by a furred, cuddly dragon. Six years later, Pete (Oakes Fegley, a forest-dweller’s name if ever I’ve heard one), is a regular little Tarzan, scampering over vines and spending nights in a cave curled up beside his friend, whom he names Elliot, after a character in a picture book he clutched when he slipped from his parents’ devastated car. All would be idyllic — or as idyllic as it could be, minus a human mom and dad — but for a construction crew led by Karl Urban, as one of those macho anti-environmentalists who want to chew up the wilderness and shoot anything left over. Fortunately, Urban’s soon-to-be sister-in-law, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), is a kind, dreamy-eyed, maternal forest ranger with a face nearly as angelic as Pete’s dead mother’s. And she has a kind, clever stepdaughter (Oona Laurence) who’d make a hell of a sister. And she has a kind, clever father (Robert Redford) who once, while hunting, came face-to-face with the alleged Millhaven dragon, and now has a mystical regard for the wilderness and its denizens. Maybe kindness will triumph over rapacious industry and the sort of people who don’t believe in friendly dragons. The shimmery score hints broadly that it will.
Several people have asked me how this Pete’s Dragon compares to Disney’s 1977 Pete’s Dragon, which was a full-blown musical with songs by Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn. I don’t want to bruise any happy childhood memories you might have of it, but the truth is, that movie was … how can I put this gently? Let me try: God-fucking-awful. Poor Helen Reddy. Poor Shelley Winters. Even if Mickey Rooney and Red Buttons needed the work, poor Mickey Rooney and Red Buttons. I bet even the cartoon dragon is embarrassed, looking back. This new movie throws out almost everything except the idea of an orphaned boy who gets adopted by a dragon and some bad guys who want to capture it and make big money. The only songs are some folkie numbers on the soundtrack that are in good taste, although it made me sad to hear Leonard Cohen singing “So Long, Marianne” only a few days after his Marianne left this world. Bad timing.
Pete’s Dragon was directed and co-written by David Lowery, who made the critically adored, outlaw art movie Ain’t Them Bodies Saints — which this critic thought was as torturous as its title. The first part of Pete’s Dragon has an odd clunkiness, as if Lowery wants to deliver a magically fluid Disney picture, but, like someone learning to waltz, keeps stutter-stepping. He’s helped by Daniel Hart’s score, the aural equivalent of a big, wet doggy tongue sliding over your face — the perfect correlative for Elliot, the computer-generated dragon, who has an awesome wingspan when he flies but is otherwise closer to a stuffed doggy. I imagine you can already find his likeness at Toys ‘R’ Us. (Just did a quick check — yep, he’s there. But no links! I’m enough of a shill already!)
After half an hour or so of those stutter steps, Pete’s Dragon starts working on you, much like those gold standards of the boy-and-his-otherworldly-friend genre, E.T. and The Iron Giant. Your eyes start to water when the purity of childish, interspecies love collides with the demands of the harsh, grown-up world. And this film has an additional avenue for wringing tears: It conjures up “Puff the Magic Dragon,” and its little Jackie Paper who gets too old to frolic in the autumn mist of Hannalee, as well as Inside Out’s Bing Bong, who must be left behind because he has no place in the life of a teenager. Don’t worry, though: Pete’s new human family is not the type to reject dragons. Watch how Grace first meets Pete in the forest in his loincloth — the way Bryce Dallas Howard asks, “Where’d you come from?” and tilts her head and scrunches her eyes in a way that signals she knows he came from someplace outside this mundane existence, some faraway, wishing-on-a-star place she dreamed of as a little girl. Oh, Bryce, you are slick — but somehow wholesome, like your dad. For a while you might wish that this were another kind of film and that Elliot would bite Karl Urban’s head off, but this is a world in which bad guys don’t stay bad for very long.
The only thing that threw me in Pete’s Dragon is seeing Redford in a mystical-codger role. Yes, Redford’s reverence for the environment is well-documented, but he doesn’t look at home sitting in a workshop telling fantastical stories to squealing kids. On the other hand, it’s better to have an actor who’s faintly embarrassed and dries the material out a bit than someone frequently cast in the role of “Gramps.” And it’s a tribute to Redford’s general fitness that every time I see him, I want to someone to call out, “Hey, Kid — how good are you?”