Released any time of the year, Disney’s in-name-only remake of “Pete’s Dragon” would be a delicate and refreshing treat. But it’s especially welcome as it comes near the end of a loudly disappointing summer, a soothing balm after so many seething bombs.
First, though, you have to forget the 1977 version. The new one, assigned to writer-director David Lowery on the strength of his wistful 2013 indie drama “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” is set in a different time and place (the Pacific Northwest in about the 1980s) and has a different storyline. It’s not a musical, and it doesn’t have hillbillies singing about how they’re going to murder the orphan they bought.
More noticeable is the change in tone: gentle, dreamy, and understated, rather than sappy and slapstick-y. It’s wholly separate from the original, a complete reimagining.
Pete (Oakes Fegley), about 10 years old, has been living as a feral child in the forest ever since his parents were killed in a car accident six years earlier. (This and other tragic elements are depicted discreetly, to avoid upsetting the young children who are the target audience. I don’t think the word “dead” or its cognates is ever used.) Pete’s lone companion and protector is Elliot, a school-bus-sized dragon with powers of invisibility. When he’s visible, he’s mammalian in appearance — he has fur (green) — with cat-like features and a dog-like demeanor.
Folklore about dragons has sprung up in the nearby logging town of Millhaven, and a few people — including old man Meacham (Robert Redford) — claim to have seen the dragon and felt its magic. Meacham’s daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a forest ranger, humors her dad and the children he tells tales to, but doesn’t believe in things she can’t see. (Theme alert!) When loggers stumble upon Pete and bring him to town, Grace, her logger fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley), and Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) are fascinated by his matter-of-fact description of what they assume is an imaginary friend.
Lowery, co-writing with Toby Halbrooks (who produced some of his earlier films), gives the story the conflict it needs to be driven forward, but not at the expense of the sweet serenity that lies at the center of it. Yes, nobody believes Pete at first; yes, child protective services wants to take Pete away; yes, as soon as Elliot’s existence is confirmed, Jack’s greedy brother (Karl Urban) wants to capture him. Lowery doesn’t whip us into a frenzy over any of these complications, and he doesn’t let them drag on longer than necessary.
Nor is he interested in raucous, rude action. Apart from a couple of wet dragon sneezes, there’s very little in the way of rowdiness or clowning; though the film has humorous moments (and they work well), it’s more a tender, dramatic adventure than a comedy.
The emotional element is likewise muted, with no histrionics or “big moments.” Pete and Elliot’s friendship is enchantingly simple (the dragon doesn’t talk), and the new connections Pete forms with Grace and Natalie are pure and uncomplicated. This light touch pays off in the end, when the tears are earned rather than jerked. It shows respect for the young audience, not beating them over the head with the emotions they’re supposed to feel.
Above all, this “Pete’s Dragon” is humble and unassuming, as if unaware of its quiet power. Free of the flamboyance that marks so many kids’ movies, and of the winking references to the past that plague so many remakes, Lowery’s vision is wonderful and big-hearted, beautiful inside and out.
A- (1 hr., 43 min.; )