Of all the films Disney could remake, “Pete’s Dragon” was likely not on many people’s list.
The 1977 film, which blended live action and animation, is not held in the pantheon of Disney classics, lacking the timeless, lasting nature of other favorites like “Cinderella,” “The Jungle Book” or “Beauty and the Beast,” which have been or soon will be remade. I profess to having seen the film three decades or so ago, and my only memory of it is that it was boring.
It’s possible that kids today seeing the new “Pete’s Dragon” might find the film boring too — it’s got long vista shots, quiet wistful moments and beautiful imagery of the lush, wooded scenery — but it’s also possible they will become entranced in this exceptional family film about an orphaned boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) who makes his home in the woods with a giant dragon named Elliot (with guttural, non-verbal communication provided by John Kassir, “Tales from the Crypt”).
Elliot is the stuff of local legend. Old man Meacham (Robert Redford) regales entranced neighborhood kids with tales of the dragon, though his forest ranger daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) doesn’t believe them.
But Elliot is a real dragon, with special abilities like fire-breathing and invisibility. He is a well-formed character with vast emotion and gravitas. The only CGI character in this live-action film feels very alive in this world.
Pete and Elliot are living a peaceful existence in the forest. But their life is upheaved when loggers start encroaching on their home. Pete is discovered and taken in by Grace and her daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence). Soon Elliot is found, too, and there’s quickly panic about a dragon running around the forest. Hunter Gavin (Karl Urban) — who is the brother of the lumber mill owner Jack (Wes Bentley), who is Natalie’s dad — is bent on capturing Elliot no matter what.
Deftly directed by David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) and co-written by Lowery and Toby Halbrooks, “Pete’s Dragon” is the answer to the question: What if Terrence Malick made a kid’s movie? The film is a rare feat these days, a quiet movie for young viewers, one that forces them to be engaged, to breathe in the environment and focus on the story. It’s not a cacophony of stupid jokes or hapless slapstick strung together on a shoestring plot and masquerading as entertainment. Parents will certainly savor this respite from the frequent mind-dulling children’s movie fare they’re forced to sit through in-between Pixar films.
Asks the old man critic: Will kids these days, who are fixated on YouTube videos and Snapchat — whatever that is — be able to focus long enough to fully embrace “Pete’s Dragon”? Who knows? But if they can, their patience will certainly reward them.