Pete’s Dragon review: Disney scores with some good, old-fashioned magic

Falkor, eat your heart out

Disney extends its streak of high-quality live-action remakes (let’s forget about Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass. I doubt too many people will mind) with Pete’s Dragon, a 21st century retool of one of the Mouse House’s more obscure, offbeat offerings. If it’s not as visually stunning as The Jungle Book and has fewer shots (read: zero) of an elaborately coutured Cate Blanchett lounging ominously in doorways than Cinderella, it’s still a very solid offering that retains some of the magic of Disney’s best.

David Lowery infuses his film with a sense of magic and wonder

And, really, no movies have as many shots of an elaborately coutured Cate Blanchett lounging ominously in doorways as Cinderella, so it’s unfair to single Pete’s Dragon out. Hollywood needs to get on that. I need more of everything Cate Blanchett is in that movie, and I need it stat.

From the land of glass slippers and bippity-boppity-boo we turn to the town of Millhaven, tucked away in a small corner of a largely unexplored forest. (For all Pete’s Dragon looks to be set in the not-too-distant past — there are no cell phones, and a character who doesn’t appear to be a 20-something Brooklynite uses a record player — Millhaven is your standard fairy tale town: small, isolated and idyllic.) Deep within that forest lives young Pete (Oakes Fegley), left stranded in the wilderness when, en route to a camping trip, a car crash claims the lives of his parents. (There are no fewer than three characters here whose mothers either died or left the picture in some unspecified way when they were young. Another Disney tradition, still going strong: No one’s allowed to have two parents.)

The fate of a little kid left alone in the forest would surely be dire; luckily, Pete comes across a big, furry dragon, who in appearance and demeanor resembles nothing so much as a gigantic dog. (Falkor, eat your heart out.) Pete and his dragon, whom he names Elliot, do pretty well in the forest for six years, until Pete stumbles across forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) and subsequently gets a crash course in the human world.

Pete's Dragon

Pete bonds with Grace and her soon-to-be-stepdaughter Natalie (Oona Laurence), daughter of Grace’s mill owner fiancée, Jack (Wes Bentley). Grace’s father Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) fills the wise-old-mentor role; he claims to have seen the dragon when he was younger, though his dyed-in-the-wool skeptic daughter thinks he’s making the whole thing up. Our baddie comes in the form of Gavin (Karl Urban), Jack’s brother, a hunter who sees Elliot only as his next trophy.

Everything in Pete’s Dragon proceeds pretty much as you’d expect it to, even if you’ve never seen or (like me) have no specific memories of the original film. The word that keeps coming to mind is "gentle"; nothing too bad ever happens in Pete’s Dragon that isn’t fixed in short order, and none of the characters are too terrible — even Gavin is far from the irredeemably evil villain we get in some other Disney stories. There’s nothing like the romance in Cinderella or the sense of danger in The Jungle Book, in which a little kid is constantly in danger of being mauled to death and/or eaten. (Idris Elba for best villain of 2016 — lock it in.)

On top of that, Pete’s Dragon is the third young-child-befriends-really-big-creature-and-goes-on-adventures movie to hit theaters in the last few months, after Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur and Steven Spielberg’s The BFG. It’s a comparison that both hurts and helps Pete’s Dragon, but mostly helps: If it doesn’t bring a ton new to the table, it’s by far the best of those three. Director David Lowery, who’s already been tapped by Disney for an upcoming Peter Pan movie, infuses his film with a sense of magic and wonder. Like Cinderella’s Kenneth Branagh and The Jungle Book’s Jon Favreau, he favors a more earnest approach to his source material than do the directors of more "edgy" fairy tale revamps. (Cough cough, Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, and Snow White and the Huntsman, cough cough).

Pete's Dragon

It’s an approach that pays off: In a summer marked in large part by movies that underperform both creatively and financially, Pete’s Dragon left me feeling good about myself and the world. The action set pieces are exciting (if the How to Train Your Dragon movies taught us anything, it’s that if there’s a scene where someone rides a dragon, you pony up for 3D), geek favorite Karl Urban does his best eyebrow acting, and one of the main characters is essentially a big green dog. Hell yeah, I even got a little misty during certain scenes. The lack of edges might not work for every viewer, particularly among adults, but I found Pete’s Dragon a feel-good movie for a decidedly un-feel-good year.

Now just pop Cate Blanchett on a dragon for the next one, Disney, and we’ll be golden.