The new “Pete’s Dragon” reaches out for that old Disney magic and while it comes ever-so-close the movie doesn’t quite achieve liftoff. Instead one must settle, gladly I would think, for an above-average family entertainment that mixes live-action and CGI in the same manner as the studio’s recent hits “The Jungle Book” and “The BFG.”
There is, of course, another “Pete’s Dragon” in the studio’s history. This earlier incarnation, dating back to 1977, is a relic from a period when the studio was engaged in its own struggle to re-capture Disney magic following Walt Disney’s death but prior to the Michael Eisner era.
In the original, a nine-year-old orphan named Pete flees his brutal adoptive parents with his only friend, a goofy pink-and-green cartoon dragon named Elliott, for the picturesque coast of Maine. The new film is less of a remake than a re-imagining that contains hints of the original storyline plus an astutely rendered, lovable CG dragon replacing the cartoon one.
So this film incorporates the two key characters, one human and the other fanciful, from the original along with dollops of “E.T.” and “The Jungle Book.” Perhaps one should call it “The Big Friendly Dragon.”
The new Pete (Oakes Fegley, 12, who had a recurring role on TV’s “Boardwalk Empire”) is made an orphan in an opening sequence, set six years earlier, a sequence that might be traumatic for smaller children, which is fairly unusual for a Disney film.
In any event, Pete survives deep within a forest somewhere in the Pacific Northwest (the movie was shot in New Zealand), thanks to the friendship and protection of a large dragon he names Elliott after a storybook character. Pete has also enlarged upon his linguistic skills thanks to no discernible source.
The latter point may seem rather trivial to bring up within the context of a Disney fantasy but herein lies a problem that bedevils the movie: it never can decide what is real and what is fantasy.
The reality of a small mill town on the edge of Pete’s forest seems no different than the old backlot towns from Disney movies of fifty years ago. Indeed with no cell phones, computers or Internet the time period is quite fuzzy.
So the depiction of the town and its characters is actually more confused than the straight-forward fantasy elements involving an amusing sage-hued CG dragon with its soulful eyes and ability to render himself invisible.
There is an old woodcarver, Mr. Meacham (played by Robert Redford no less), who tells the town’s children tales of a fierce dragon he once encountered in the nearby forest. His daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who works as a forest ranger in those very woods, has long ago ceased to believe in his tall tale yet he insists, not too strenuously, the story is true.
Then Grace and her fiancé’s 11-year-old daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) discover Pete. It takes a lot of plot mechanics to lure Pete back to civilization — he like Mowgli in “The Jungle Book” has become a wild child, shunning the apparent dangers of human society —and even more mechanics for those two to understand Pete has existed in the wild for over a half decade under the sponsorship of a dragon.
These twin discoveries set in motion a series of events that wind up endangering nearly everyone’s life including Elliott’s (assuming a mythical character can suffer death, which is never entirely made clear).
Some of this involves a local lumber mill owner, Jack (Wes Bentley), with whom Grace has a relationship. Where Natalie’s mother is in all this is as unclear as Jack’s relationship with his own employee/brother Gavin (New Zealander Karl Urban), who as a gung-ho forest destroyer serves as the film’s nominal villain.
The screenplay by Lowery and Toby Halbrooks keeps everything fuzzy. Why can’t the mill owner control his own brother? Do Grace and her daughter actually live with Jack, this being a Disney movie? Is Redford’s old coot off his rocker or actually in touch with things “magical?” He certainly disappears for longer stretches than you want when you have Robert Redford in a movie.
As the movie works its way toward yet another Disney take on the meaning of the nuclear family — along with a conservationist stance — it achieves its best magic in the simpler relationship between Pete and his dragon and later Natalie’s relationship with them both.
The hunting and capture of Elliott, his escape, a chase through forests, mountains and across a bridge get in the way of a touching story about children and friendship. Why was any of this forced melodrama necessary?
Why does the sheriff and more squad cars than probably exist in the state of Washington even respond to a complaint about a dragon on the loose? Do they also respond to calls about unicorns?
You understand that Lowery is aiming for a folkloric quality but he never quite meshes the real and imaginary in a coherent manner. What youngsters will respond to are all the scenes with the dragon, who is portrayed like a large dog albeit one that can fly. Here emotions are skillfully played as is the evolving relationship between the two youngsters.
More could have been made of the latter, a child of the wild meeting another from human society. Plus the old woodcarver needed to be more integral to the story. He is, after all, the one adult who actually believes Pete’s story about his friend Elliott.
So as good as “Pete’s Dragon” is, for all the fine work by the special effects folks and Weta Digital for the title character, you sense a rare opportunity for a Disney classic slipped through the filmmakers’ fingers.
The 3D version offers negligible rewards so I’d skip the more expensive projection for good old-fashioned 2D.
Opens: August 12, 2016 (Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)
Production company: Whitaker Entertainment
Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban
Director: David Lowery
Screenwriters: David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks
Based on a screenplay by: Malcolm Marmorstein
Producer: Jim Whitaker
Executive producer: Barrie M. Osborne
Director of photography: Bojan Bazelli
Production designer: Jade Healy
Music: Daniel Hart
Costume designer: Amanda Neale
Editor: Lisa Zeno Churgin
PG rating, 103 minutes