Director: David Lowery
Stars: Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard
4 (out of 5) Globes
The new “Pete’s Dragon” could be another pox on the multiplexes; instead it’s closer to the cure. In an era of badly told stories writ as huge and expensive as possible, it plays small and precise. A thankfully very loose remake of a Disney runt from 1977, it turns an overlong torture machine into a modest, cuddly and almost surreally short lark that just so happens to feature a gorgeously designed CGI monster. We almost don’t deserve a movie this nice — the nicest, surely, since David Lynch’s actually G-rated “The Straight Story,” with the added benefit of a winged behemoth cuter than a thousand cat videos.
That doesn’t mean it doesn’t have claws. It even begins with death. Young Pete only meets his dragon friend after surviving a car accident that claims his doting parents. Pete calls him Elliott (the “E.T.” reference is hard to miss), and they spend years in the wilds of the Pacific Northwest, evading society, living off the land, trading inhuman noises. Naturally, the plot engineers to separate them. Pete is found by a peerlessly sweet woman (Bryce Dallas Howard, natch), who wants to integrate him into a small town so unstuck in time the radio station plays 1967-era Leonard Cohen. But not everyone is so kind: Karl Urban plays a local hothead who’s all about catching the mythic “Millhaven Dragon” — a plan he’s stupid enough to think is smart.
Like “Jurassic World,” “Pete’s Dragon” finds an indie filmmaker graduating from tiny budgets to a big studio brand. But David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) doesn’t bite off more than he can chew. The plot is simple, mostly taking place over two days. Characters are simple, too. Robert Redford is on hand to basically bring laidback Robert Redford-ness to the role of Howard’s father, who claims he once saw the elusive Elliott and has spent the ensuing decades telling what sound like tall stories. He upbraids his daughter for not believing him: “You shouldn’t only believe in what’s in front of you.”
That sounds like your usual jazz about the powers of blind, dumb faith. But “Pete’s Dragon” is more complex than that — and generally more complex than its slender story lets on. For one thing, it’s not a film about faith. There really is a dragon, and he’s not always nice. He is cute. Lowery likes to show Elliott being adorable and YouTube-able: chasing his own tail, letting out deafening purrs, pelting people with epic sneezes of snot. (“Pete’s Dragon” uses dragon boogers the way most children’s films use farts.) But he doesn’t kindly to aggressors, and we might forget he is a dragon, one who, when pressed, can bring the noise and even the fire.
Again, this is a nice movie. But like most good nice movies, it knows when to show its dark side. It also knows not to go too far. It’s a retro film but not mere cheap nostalgia. Mostly it longs for a time when children’s films made sense, had stories that weren’t hard to follow, mixed humor and heartbreak like a pro and generally weren’t cynical. That it’s a movie borne out of cynicism — basically made because a giant conglomerate wanted to make money from a famous (if disreputable) title — is, actually, perfect. It shows that sometimes second chances aren’t the opportunity to make the same mistakes again. Isn’t that nice?