“Pete’s Dragon” is a warm cup of cocoa and a hug from Robert Redford at the end of the summer. They don’t make mainstream movies like this any more. There are no smart-mouthed kids and bodily function jokes. So go see this one.
The worst thing you can say about “Pete’s Dragon” is that although it is filled with a sense of magic, it doesn’t have the soaring set pieces or excitement-filled climax to please audiences that aren’t in touch with their inner child. Moviegoers on the younger side of adulthood might find it slow.
But the sense of place is real, and the emotional beats are well-earned. The dragon is a character, not just a spectacle.
“Pete’s Dragon” begins with a child witnessing his parents’ death and thoughtfully explores his actions and anxieties after spending six years away from society. Pete finds a surrogate family in forest ranger Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), her father (Redford) and a step-daughter who is the orphan’s age. They live in an idyllic Pacific Northwest town, except for the logging interests, led by men with a conquering spirit that counterpoints the Meachams’ preservation beliefs.
David Lowery co-wrote and directed “Pete’s Dragon” with subtle graces that are hard to find in family movies with $50 million budgets and worldwide marketing campaigns. The sound track is roots music made by adults, not some new Disney band. Even after watching the film, it’s hard to pinpoint the era in which the events take place. The 1980s? 2016? In a parallel universe with elements of both?
It’s a film made by confident people thinking 50 years down the line, knowing that quality filmmaking will have value in the vault, even if it doesn’t break records on opening weekend.
The two child actors, Oakes Fegley as Pete and Oona Lawrence as young Natalie, are excellent, not just believable but absorbing in their scenes together. But it’s Redford who holds the movie together, a respected elder looking over our shoulders to remind us we can do better.
The finale doesn’t ascend into the stratosphere. But “Pete’s Dragon” gets the little things right: the profound sadness of a child, and the hard decisions of a responsible adult. The choice of leaving comfort behind, to explore a new adventure. The contentment of old age, when you still believe in magic.
There should be more family movies like “Pete’s Dragon.” Since there aren’t, you should get behind this one.
Rated PG for action, peril and brief language. 1:43. 2D and 3D: Fayette, Frankfort, Georgetown, Hamburg, Nicholasville, Richmond, Winchester, Woodhill.