Movie Review: “Pete’s Dragon”

Pete's Dragon movie poster

“That’s the thing about adventures: you’ve got to be brave.” So begins Disney’s latest outing, an overhaul of the 1977 partially animated film of the same name. This time out, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a young boy orphaned at age five by what we’ll term “Bambi’s Unintentional Revenge”. He dashes off into the woods and immediately lands in danger–but he’s saved by a furry beastie he names “Elliot” after the “Elliot Gets Lost” storybook he was reading in the car at the time tragedy struck.

Fast forward six years, to the nearby logging town of Millhaven. There’s a legend about “The Millhaven Dragon”, kept alive by the tall tales of a local who claims he squared off against it–Meacham (amiably played by Robert Redford). Early on, he holds court over a pre-tween audience, cautioning them: “Just because you don’t see something doesn’t mean it’s not there.” Of course, it’s easy to say that when you’re the one telling the stories.

Meacham (Redford)

Meacham (Redford), at home in the woods

The Millhaven Dragon, naturally, refers to Elliot–who has cared for Pete all this time. The now 11-year-old Pete is fairly feral and runs, jumps, dives off cliffs, and plays with Elliot with total abandon. It’s been six years of no responsibility and all play with his rather large and furry bestie. During a game of hide-and-seek Elliot shows off his ability to camouflage to the point where he seems to disappear, but it’s quite certain that he definitely exists. This friend is absolutely not imaginary.

Pete (Fegley) and Elliot

Boy meets dragon: Pete (Fegley) and Elliot

On a walk deep in the woods to track owls, Meacham’s daughter–Park Ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard)–stumbles upon Pete. With the help of some nearby loggers, including her fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley) and his taciturn brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), Grace confronts the mysterious boy. Jack’s daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) attempts to befriend Pete in the woods, but the confused boy–who later wakes in a hospital post-capture–is unsure of his surroundings and flees. Thus begins the triple chase theme that runs through the rest of the movie: Grace chasing Pete as the son she doesn’t have, Pete chasing his Elliot to regain his freedom, and Gavin chasing Elliot in search of fame and fortune. Even as Grace and Jack start to ponder the idea of Pete being more than just a transient playmate for Natalie, Pete’s eyes are always trained towards his home in the woods with his furry friend. Elliot never gives up hope that he may see Pete, but Gavin’s malicious advances endanger everyone, including Elliott, Pete, and the trio of Grace, Jack, and Natalie.

Grace (Howard), Pete (Fegley), Jack (Bentley), and Natalie (Laurence)

It’s a (pseudo) family affair: Grace (Howard), Pete (Fegley), Jack (Bentley), and Natalie (Laurence)

This movie does well at bringing Elliot to life, even if the concept of a furry dragon is still a bit confusing. He’s a playful, heroic figure who genuinely loves Pete from the first moment they meet–a boy’s best friend. Pete, touchingly animated by Fegley’s soulful eyes, is full of exuberance and an inner luminosity borne out of a carefree youth spent heavily as a dragon’s wingman. Laurence’s Natalie is endearing, the conscience of the film and the moral compass guiding those around her.

Natalie (Laurence) is introduced to Elliot by Pete (Fegley)

Girl Meets Dragon: Natalie (Laurence) is introduced to Elliot by Pete (Fegley)

Sadly, these three are really the only fully developed characters in the film. Redford’s Meacham serves the general role of “Elder Statesman With A Heart of Gold”, Howard’s Grace is “The Park Ranger With A Heart Of Gold”, Bentley’s Jack is “The Logger And Engaged Single Dad With A Heart Of Gold”, and Urban’s Gavin is “One-Dimensional Bad Guy Logger”. That’s not to say that they acquit themselves poorly; on the contrary, both Meacham and Grace are sweet characters that you want to root for time and again. Jack is there mostly to keep the scenery from flying away, but Bentley does as best as he can with a role that basically just locks him into “generic good guy” mode.

Jack (Bentley) and Gavin (Urban)

Logger bros Jack (Bentley) and Gavin (Urban)

Of all of the characters, I take exception only to Gavin; Karl Urban is given almost nothing from a script perspective. An accomplished actor who can play it straight (“The Two Towers” and “Return of the King”), he can also chew scenery with the best of them (“The Chronicles of Riddick” and any of the new “Star Trek” reboots). Instead, he’s relegated to a thinly drawn role–made an antagonist because the film needed one, not because there was particularly any need for his character to be an antagonist. His motivations are non-existent until he says them out loud, by which time you wonder, “Really? That’s where they’re going with this?”

Natalie (Laurence), Grace (Howard), and Jack (Bentley)

The family unit: Natalie (Laurence), Grace (Howard), and Jack (Bentley)

Is “Pete’s Dragon” okay for kids? Oh sure. There are a couple of scary scenes, including one with wolves at the beginning, but I wouldn’t hesitate to take my newly-minted seven-year-old to the movie with me. The computer graphics are okay enough–Elliot’s fur is rendered well, but the fuzzy dragon never looks like he’s as natural as his surroundings. On the other hand, the fur likely dials down the scare factor that might’ve been higher if he sported traditional dragon scales. Kids will love Elliot in all his fuzzy glory, and boys will long to run wild through the woods with so marvelous a companion. Girls will get a kick out of Natalie–the Hermione Granger of this film–strong, smart, and unafraid. And really, in a family-friendly movie like “Pete’s Dragon”, the adults aren’t the draw anyway, so positive images of the “kids” (of all shapes and sizes) is really all that matters.

2-1/2 out of 4 stars

“Pete’s Dragon” opens nationwide on August 12, 2016. This movie is rated PG for action, peril, and brief language.