Gentle 'Pete's Dragon' is a welcome palate cleanser from summer movie season

The quiet, sweetly sincere film stars Robert Redford, Bryce Dallas Howard, and Oakes Fegley.

Matt Klitscher/Disney/AP
'Pete's Dragon' stars Bryce Dallas Howard (l.) and Oakes Fegley (r.).

After an exhausting summer buffet of set pieces and superheroes, the gentle "Pete's Dragon" is a welcome palate cleanser. Where other summer movies are chest-thumping, it's quiet; where others are brashly cynical, it's sweetly sincere; where others are lacking in giant cuddly dragons, "Pete's Dragon" has one.

Few may remember the 1977 Disney original, in which a young boy's best friend was a bubbly dragon invisible to others. As part of Disney's continuing effort to remake its animated classics in live-action, "Pete's Dragon" has been confidently reborn as an earnest tale of green-winged wonder.

David Lowery, a veteran of the independent film world and the director of the lyrical crime drama "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," inherits a far bigger film. But his "Pete's Dragon" still maintains the homespun feel of an American fable. Spielberg-lite, you might call it.

The film begins, in the "Bambi" tradition, in parental tragedy. Pete's family is driving through a remote Pacific Northwest forest with Pete nestled in the backseat of the station wagon, reading a children's book about a dog named Elliott. A deer sprints out and, in poetic slow-motion, the gravity of the car's interior is upended. The car flips off the road and Pete staggers from the crash.

Flashing forward six years, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a wild 10-year-old orphan living in the woods alone except for his magical companion, the dragon Elliott. As far as CGI creatures go, Elliott is an irresistible one. Furry as a fairway, he's like an enormous emerald-green puppy. Far from the "Game of Thrones" dragon variety, he's more adept at chasing his own tail than breathing fire.

He's also the subject of local folklore, mostly as told by Robert Redford's wood-carving storyteller. But it's his forest ranger daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), that first encounters Elliott and ultimately leads to the dragon's discovery.

Grace coaxes Elliott back into society and into the fold of her family. She has a daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), and lumber mill-running husband Jack (Wes Bentley). It's the push by a logging company – where Jack's brother, Gavin (Karl Urban) is a gun-totting lumberjack – into the forest that simultaneously begins flushing out Pete and Elliott from their home in the trees.

The lush forest (New Zealand, again, subbing for North America) reigns over "Pete's Dragon," a tale scored with soft bluegrass and exuding an environment-friendly love for the beautiful and exotic splendors of nature. When competing interests come for Elliott, they are really fighting for the soul of the forest.

There are Spielbergian gestures here of magic and family and faith, perhaps better orchestrated than Spielberg's own recent try at a Disney film, "The BFG." But it's missing a spark, a sense of danger, and maybe a little humor.

The lean simplicity of "Pete's Dragon" is its greatest attribute and its weakness. It doesn't quite achieve liftoff until the film's final moments. But it does at last catch flight, finally soaring beyond its humble folksiness.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.