From amid the anger over uninspired sequels and reboots this summer emerges Pete’s Dragon, a delightful family movie that’s firm on its own foundation and follows its own creative vision while using its source material as a platform to reach new heights. Ostensibly remaking Disney’s 1977 live-action-with-animation fantasy that is goofy and endearing, but—let’s be honest—not exactly classic material, writer-director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) uses the characters’ names (Pete, Elliott the dragon) and very loosely reimagines plot points to create an entirely fresh vision that works on its own terms.
We first meet a 5-year-old Pete in the late 1970s on a drive with his parents somewhere in the Pacific Northwest, when the father swerves to avoid a deer, causing a devastating accident from which Pete is the only survivor. After being chased by wolves through the forest, Pete is rescued by an enormous winged beast that is covered in green fur and has intelligent eyes and an alternately empathetic and playful face. The two disappear into the woods together, and for six years are inseparable best friends, until Pete is discovered by the residents of a small logging town where a local patriarch, Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford), has been spinning tall tales of having seen a dragon in the woods.
The technical marvel of the film in both audio and visual design would be worth the cost of entry alone, but Pete’s Dragon uses its special effects not as a crutch but as an essential component to the artistry of the film. Elliott—named after a character in a book Pete kept as the sole reminder of his life before the accident—is not a bumbling, adorable monster as in the original, but a symbolic amalgamation of elements from mythology, the natural world and even domesticated animals. Voiced by John Kassir (famous as the Crypt Keeper), he is not Pete’s imaginary friend or escapist wish fulfillment, but a manifestation of the things we cherish as children yet take for granted as adults: nature, the magic of imagination and discovery and the value of companionship.
Lowery uses the relatively straightforward narrative to let the rich emotion, the relationships between the characters and sophistication of its underlying themes do the heavy lifting in his film. Pete’s Dragon is partly a meditation on family and community; Pete, an orphan, is discovered by Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), an adoptive mother to the daughter of her partner, Jack (Wes Bentley). The chief villain of the film, Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban), does not fill that role because he’s greedy or dastardly, but his exposure to Elliott was not the same as his family’s. He saw a monster, and, recalling the exaggerated tales of Mr. Meacham, considers it a threat. Lowery is keen on the importance of perspective and allowing yourself to be open to the possibility that just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it isn’t there, a theme that applies to not only literal dragons but also emotions and personal connections.
Cute, touching, sophisticated yet straightforward, visually and sonically stunning with great performances by kids and adults alike, there really aren’t enough good things to say about Pete’s Dragon. It’s a breath of fresh air in a summer where updates to franchises intended for children and teenagers are all glum, ironic, violent, self-aggrandizing and ultimately hollow. The film is great family entertainment, but no children are necessary to enjoy its beauty and wonder.
Playing this week z Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX The Shops at Stonefield, 244-3213 z Bad Moms, Florence Foster Jenkins, Ghostbusters, Ice Age: Collision Course, Jason Bourne, Lights Out, Nine Lives, The Secret Life of Pets, Sausage Party, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad z Violet Crown Cinema 200 W. Main St., Downtown Mall, 529-3000 z Bad Moms, Café Society, The Fits, Florence Foster Jenkins, Gleason, Indignation, Jason Bourne, Sausage Party, Star Trek Beyond, Suicide Squad
PG, 95 minutes
Violet Crown Cinema and
Regal Stonefield 14 and IMAX