When was the last time you sat back and let a movie gently take you where it wanted, without feeling worried that something objectionable was just around the corner? It was probably a Disney movie from a long time ago. Pete's Dragon is, if not exactly fresh, then at least far from frenetic. 4 out of 5.
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This retelling of the animated/live-action hybrid Disney film from 1977 is an oasis for families during a summer of Suicide Squads, Bad Moms and the umpteenth frantic Ice Age installment. A very young Pete and his parents are bound on an adventure when tragedy strikes, leaving Pete alone in the woods, where the child is helpless against predators. But Pete has someone—or something—looking out for him: a giant dragon he dubs Elliot.
Years later, 11-year-old Natalie (Oona Laurence) and forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) spot Pete and return him to civilization, where they help piece together Pete’s past. But hospitals and suburbia are no match for the bond between Pete and Elliot, even though Pete can’t convince anyone that dragons are real. Skeptics include Natalie's dad, Jack (Wes Bentley), whose brother Gavin (Karl Urban) sees in Elliot a ticket to fame. The only advocate Pete has fully in his corner is Grace's dad, Meacham (Robert Redford), who has reasons to believe Pete's dragon stories aren't merely flights of fancy.
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The unhurried pacing of the story is refreshing, rewarding patience even as the story goes to familiar places, while the integration of the CGI Elliot with the human actors is a special effects triumph. Far from mere technical wizardry, the effective melding of human actors with the dragon generates real pathos, especially during a moving finale.
Not all the technology that went into Pete's Dragon is a marvel. Skip the 3D presentation, which makes the early part of the story, set in a dimly lit forest, much too dark. The story may be formulaic, but it's gentle and offers a generous emotional payoff.
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Characters discuss belief in things unseen, although the comments are not made in a faith context. Meacham speaks of "magic" in the forest and how it changes the way he sees the world, and he encourages Grace to be open to looking for things she's convinced can't be real.
RECOMMENDED FOR: All but the youngest, most sensitive audience members. Pete's Dragon won't scandalize anyone's sensibilities or insult anyone's intelligence. This is family filmmaking of a sort we don't often see these days.
NOT RECOMMENDED FOR: Audiences that have settled for "family entertainment" comprising darker superhero stories and animated fare that substitutes rapid-fire jokes for story development. Pete's Dragon requires a level of patience that not long ago—say, the '90s—would have been considered commonplace. Such "demands" now make the film feel like a throwback.
Pete's Dragon, directed by David Lowery, opened in theaters August 12, 2016; available for home viewing November 29, 2016. It runs 127 minutes and stars Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Robert Redford, Wes Bentley, Oona Laurence and Karl Urban. Watch the trailer for Pete's Dragon here.
Christian Hamaker brings a background in both Religion (M.A., Reformed Theological Seminary) and Film/Popular Culture (B.A., Virginia Tech) to his reviews. He still has a collection of more than 100 laserdiscs, and for DVDs patronizes the local library. Streaming? What is this "streaming" of which you speak? He'll figure it out someday. Until then, his preferred viewing venue is a movie theater. Christian is happily married to Sarah, a parent coach and author of Hired@Home and Ending Sibling Rivalry.
Publication date: August 10, 2016