“Pete’s Dragon” is a reboot of a much-loved 1977 Disney musical starring Helen Reddy as the kind-hearted daughter of a lighthouse keeper who adopts Pete, a young boy whose best friend is a dragon named Elliot. Pete and the dragon are back but the songs and Helen Reddy are gone, replaced by Bryce Dallas Howard and an updated look at the story.
Wood carver Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) likes to tell tale tales about a dragon who lives nearby in the woods of the Pacific Northwest. But are they really tall tales? His daughter, forest ranger Grace (Howard), thinks they are until she meets Pete (Oakes Fegley), a feral 10-year-old mystery boy who says he has survived, solo, in the woods for six years. “Nobody can survive in a forest for six years,” says Mr. Meacham, “at least not alone.” “He says he wasn’t alone,” replies Grace.
Seems Pete’s story echoes the tales Mr. Meacham has been telling about a giant, furry green dragon. The boy says the beast’s name is Elliott (voice of John Kassir). “I need to get back to him,” says Pete. “He gets scared when he’s alone.”
Rather then turn the boy over to Social Services Grace decides to discover if Elliot is real or figment of her father and Pete’s imaginations. “I know these words like I know the back of my hand,” she says. “I couldn’t have missed a dragon.” “Well, you missed Pete,” says her dad.
She enlists the help of her father and Natalie (Oona Laurence), the daughter of Jack (Wes Bentley), the local lumber mill owner. Complicating her search is Jack’s aggressive brother Gavin (Karl Urban) who thinks the dragon is dangerous and plans on capturing it. “Going to go catch a dragon,” he says in a note to his brother.
There be dragons in “Pete’s Dragons,” but “Game of Thrones” this ain’t. As subtle and underplayed as a movie about a dragon can be, the movie is so gentle even the death of Pete’s parents is handled with kid gloves. Instead of wowing the audience with action director David Lowery aims for the heart and hits a bull’s-eye.
The touching story of a boy and his dragon is actually about family and where you find it. The snaggletooth dragon is Pete’s adopted father, a playful gentle giant—he large enough to cover the entire flatbed of an 18 wheeler—who purrs like a kitten and chases his own tail but is fiercely protective of the young boy. It’s a familiar theme in Disney films but Lowery knows that sometimes clichés are clichés because they’re true. He establishes the relationship between Pete and Elliott early on and it is at the heart of the story.
“Pete’s Dragon” feels somewhat old fashioned, harkening back to a time when kid’s movies didn’t contain an ounce of cynicism. This is a simply told story that succeeds because it boils the fanciful tale down to its basics, the power of belief, relationships and friendship… and tops it all off with a cool dragon.