PETE’S DRAGON (Movie Review)

*** out of ****
Rated PG

(for action, peril, and brief language)
Released: August 12, 2016
Runtime: 103 minutes
Director: David Lowery
Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Robert Redford, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Isiah Whitlock Jr.

Conventional wisdom says that Marvel and Pixar are the two most reliable brands in Hollywood, and by box office numbers that’s a pretty fair assessment (even a no-brainer). But when it comes to actual consistent quality, no brand is better than the rejuvenated Disney.

2016 alone has seen some of the year’s best movies released under the banner of Walt’s signature: Zootopia, The Jungle Book, and The BFG. When you factor in their modern renaissance forebears (Tangled, Wreck-It Ralph, Frozen, Cinderella), it’s safe to say that we’re in a new Disney Golden Age – one that boasts successes in the animation and live-action realms – some 25 years after the previous (and singularly animated) one began.

Who knew this fact would be solidified by a remake that nobody was asking for?

The new Pete’s Dragon bears almost no resemblance to its 1977 original beyond the basic “boy and his dragon” premise (which is good), and it’s not even in the league of the better Disney movies I just mentioned (which is fine). Yet what still makes it special – beyond the fact that it’s a good, heart-warming tale well told – is the very fact that it’s “good” and not “great”.

In baseball parlance, a championship team needs to rely on singles and doubles to succeed, not just triples and homers. Pete’s Dragon is a solid single (or even a double, depending on your disposition) that provides families another worthy, even noble, entertainment option rather than a crass, obnoxious, and grating one.

Set in the 1980s (defined only by the cumulative environment of clothing styles, cars, and simpler technology – aka no cell phones – and not indulgent pop culture references), Pete’s Dragon tells the story of a boy, Pete, orphaned to the woods of the Pacific Northwest after a fatal car accident kills his parents (tastefully depicted). He’s protected and nurtured by a friendly green dragon (who Pete names Elliot) that secretly resides there, only a figure of myth and legend to the locals.

Years later, Pete (relative newcomer Oakes Fegley) is discovered by Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a local forest ranger. Subsequently, so is Elliot. What ensues is a fairly typical narrative of good, hopeful townsfolk needing to stop the angry, fear-mongering mobs who want to take Elliot captive, with kids (Pete, along with new friend Natalie, Grace’s stepdaughter) leading the heroic efforts.

Though at times a bit didactic, Pete’s Dragon is never pandering, a rare virtue for family fare. Instead, it embraces the spirit of a humble, tender storyteller, reflected in Robert Redford’s old sage, the village’s sole dragon true believer. The film’s modest budget, by contrast, makes the CGI Elliot not entirely believable – it’s well done, by and large, but never seamlessly convincing – but for a fable of simple ambitions and a pure heart, that lack of visual credibility never becomes a liability. The 1980s timeframe, too, makes the insular context of these dramatic events more plausible, with no smartphones to capture snapshots or social media to instantly spread images or tweets.

What the film lacks in style (indie director David Lowery’s visual approach is surprisingly conventional, even rudimentary) it makes up for in tone, characters, values, and sentiment. It plays to the most endearing qualities of children and childhood, not the more annoying ones (leave that to the ilk of Nickelodeon flicks and the like).

Pete’s Dragon is the kind of movie that parents want their kids to like. Luckily for parents (and thanks to an admirable brand strategy by Disney), their kids will.

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