BWW Review: After Fledgling Start PETE'S DRAGON Spreads Massive Wings & Soars!

Oakes Fegley as Pete in PETE'S DRAGON,
the story of a boy named Pete and his best friend,
who just happens to be a dragon.

PETE'S DRAGON is a movie for children, not adults, but grown-ups will still find themselves enchanted by Pete, an orphaned 11-year-old struggling to hold on to his best friend, a dragon named Elliott.

For six years, Pete (Oakes Fegley) has lived in the woods with Elliott, a close friend, a protector, and a furry green dragon. Then, to Pete's dismay, Natalie (Oona Laurence), the young daughter of lumber mill owner Jack (Wes Bentley) discovers him, forcing him into a world of honking car horns, hospital rooms and social services. Sheriff Dentler (Isiah Whitlock Jr.) places Pete in the care of forest ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard). Grace inherited her love of the woods from her father, Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford)--a wood-carver and inveterate storyteller. His favorite story: a terrifying encounter with the big, green dragon that resides in the town's nearby forest.

Director David Lowery's PETE'S DRAGON is as modern as it is nostalgic. Whereas the original film set the story in the 1900s, Lowery sets his version in the 1980s, a time before modern day complications (some may say conveniences) like cell phones and computers in the close-knit community of Millhaven, a fictional town in the Pacific Northwest. He creates a forest that is vast, pure, full of possibility and makes it easy to understand Pete's attraction to the wild in spite of the dangers that lay in wait.

His camera languidly drinks in the rich landscape, giving viewers a taste of otherworldly beauty. In contrast, the opening is abrupt, the plunge into the drama immediate. This is good news and bad news. The quick start instantly intrigues, but it is ultimately the film's undoing. Lowery takes for granted that we care about Grace and her father or, for that matter, Pete and Elliott. Yes, Redford is a screen legend. And sure, Gavin (Karl Urban), a misguided blockheaded antagonist who is ultimately harmless, is comforting in his familiarity. But archetypes alone cannot illustrate a story, so the warm feeling dissipates as quickly as it begins.

Initially, PETE'S DRAGON offers little more than stock characters and shallow storytelling. Minimal dialogue leaves the audience feeling their way through the film in the dark. Lowery and writing partner Toby Halbrooks also introduce several themes--the importance of family, believing without seeing, adventure, saving the environment--then neglect to explore them, giving each a cursory look at most. And characters do not meaningfully engage with each other for the first third of the film. Children will find Pete and his human friend Natalie (Oona Laurence) blank slates upon which they can project their inner selves, while adults will simply find Grace and Jack (Wes Bentley) disengaging.

Then, as a director, Lowery stretches this already impoverished script too thin. Early on, he uses folksy affectations in the soundtrack and situations as emotional shorthand thereby draining these potentially cute moments of their charm. And nothing much happens for the first two-thirds of the film, making PETE'S DRAGON agonizingly slow at times. But just when you're about to give up, he brings it back by delivering a stirring, thrilling finale. You'll root for Pete and Elliott. You'll welcome the hokey, precious moments. Then, if my screening is any indication, you'll clap and cheer at the credits.

The performances counteract Lowery and Halbrooks' superficial treatment of the story and subjects as well. Fegley is a talented actor able to express strong emotion with subtlety and make Pete feel authentic even when his actions are not. Redford offers an equally authentic portrayal. While Redford's Meacham is not a reinvention of the wheel, it is original. But the true show-stealing performance comes from the cuddly, computer-generated Elliott (voiced by John Kassir).

Stick it out. Bear the yawns. PETE'S DRAGON is a lovely adventure film that pleases the eyes, the spirit and, sometimes, the mind. And though it never quite reaches the nadir it wants or soars as high as it could, it radiates with warmth and sparkles with purity. Most importantly, it is tailor made for children with their boundless imaginations and endless curiosity. Undoubtedly, many young viewers will find themselves searching backyards and back alleys for dragons of their own.

Disney's PETE'S DRAGON starring Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Bryce Dallas Howard and Robert Redford is now in theaters. Rated PG for action, peril and brief language. For tickets, visit di.sn/6005BImol. See the official website at movies.disney.com/petes-dragon-2016. 103 min.


Oakes Fegley is Pete in Disney's PETE'S DRAGON, the story of a boy named Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just happens to be a dragon.


Karl Urban is Gavin in Disney's PETE'S DRAGON, the story of a boy named Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just happens to be a dragon.


Still from Disney's PETE'S DRAGON, the story of a boy named Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just happens to be a dragon.


Oakes Fegley is Pete and Oona Laurence is Natalie in Disney's PETE'S DRAGON, the story of a boy named Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just happens to be a dragon.


Oakes Fegley is Pete and Oona Laurence is Natalie in Disney's PETE'S DRAGON, the story of a boy named Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just happens to be a dragon.


Oakes Fegley is Pete in Disney's PETE'S DRAGON, the story of a boy named Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just happens to be a dragon.


Still from Disney's PETE'S DRAGON, the story of a boy named Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just happens to be a dragon.


Robert Redford is Mr. Meacham, an old wood carver who is fond of telling tales about big, furry green dragons in Disney's PETE'S DRAGON, the story of a boy named Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just happens to be a dragon.

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From This Author Katricia Lang

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