‘Pete’s Dragon’ brings magic to the big screen

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Pete’s Dragon (2016)

Directed by David Lowery

Disney’s updated take on “Pete’s Dragon” presents a realer, grimmer world than the whimsical Passamaquoddy presented in its musical version almost 40 years ago, but the spirit of adventure and magic is still present—before all else, fun comes first.

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In the small, wooded town of Millhaven, a park ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), maintains a work/life balance with her fiancé, Jack (Wes Bentley), who owns the logging mill that is slowly deforesting the trees Grace works to protect. One day, Grace happens upon a young boy, Pete (Oakes Fegley), who has been living in the woods since he was abandoned five years ago. Jack’s brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), also sees something else—a dragon, Pete’s dragon, who he sets out to hunt. Nobody believes him except Grace’s dad Meachum (Robert Redford), who loves to tell the story of when he saw the dragon decades ago. As Grace and Jack (along with Jack’s daughter Natalie, played by Oona Laurence) take Pete in and attempt to transition him into the real world, Pete makes every effort to return to the forest and the dragon he calls Elliot, before it’s too late.

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As much as Robert Redford cares about giving a worthy performance in everything he’s in, he cares even more about environmental activism. That’s why “Pete’s Dragon” shows us what happens when natural habitats are cut down for the convenience of a few lazy folks who can’t make the transition to just paying their bills online. Either that or it’s the only way he’d accept the role. Either way, he’s a national treasure. His line delivery doesn’t always feel natural—somehow, it’s better. Every word flows out of his lips infused with magic. It’s theatrical, and extraordinarily pleasant to hear—like a siren call for pitch-perfect acting. Bryce Dallas Howard, coming off a performance in last year’s “Jurassic World” that made my eyes roll, here presents a softer image. She, too, gives “Pete’s Dragon” an air of artificiality that makes “Pete’s Dragon” especially perfect for children. The dragon and the guns might be real, but the warm vibes coming from the screen put everyone at ease.

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Giving context to the 1977 Disney musical, “Pete’s Dragon” begins with an origin story. That’s especially helpful context, and it’s done without wasting our time. But aside from adding things, the filmmakers also changed a lot. Almost everything, in fact: the setting, the characters, and the plot all get updates from the almost-40-year-old original— only Pete and Elliot remain, along with that carried-over sense of childish whimsy. But even the few things that remain are better. Elliot is more of a thinking, feeling character than he ever was. We care about him and worry about him. We also see more focus on Pete’s transition from wild child to domesticated young boy. Instead of the cheesy tunes we heard in the musical, here we hear a melodic score and a soundtrack of Americana sounds. In this way, “Pete’s Dragon” coexists peacefully with the original. They can both be enjoyed, for equal reasons, on the same level. Whereas this year’s “The Jungle Book” rehashed much of the plot from its animated predecessor, and seemed only to be a technological advancement, “Pete’s Dragon” only steals a select few of the best parts from the musical. No reinventing of the wheel here.

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“Pete’s Dragon” is pure magic. A modern day “E.T.” for a new generation of children. For the fifth time this year (following “Zootopia,” “The Jungle Book,” “Finding Dory,” and “The BFG”), Disney has released a wonderful new addition to the kid movie canon.

8/10

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