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---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, and with Oona Laurence as Natalie (c) 2016 Disney Enterprises inc. All Rights Reserved.

Disney’s shocking new interpretation of a fondly remembered icon

By Nora Lee Mandel

PETE’S DRAGON
Directed by David Lowery
Produced by Jim Whitaker
Written by Lowery & Toby Halbrooks, based on a screenplay by Malcolm Marmorstein
Released by Disney nationally August 12, 2016
USA. 102 min. Rated PG
With: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Isiah Whitlock, Jr. and Robert Redford

Disney's remake of its own Pete's Dragon is shocking: the dragon has fur!

Sure the 1977 release isn’t in the Disney animation pantheon, as a feature-length use of combining the animated dragon with live action and music, going further than a famous scene in Mary Poppins. While not “beloved” as Disney claims, kids liked the big green dragon.

Director David Lowery, co-writing the screenplay with Toby Halbrooks, has come up with a new dragon mythology to distract us from the profit motive of selling stuffed animals and from pop culture’s reigning more traditional-looking, fierce-some dragons in Game of Thrones who are only friendly to certain people. The mythological premise seems to grow out of those medieval maps that divided between “The Known World” and the unexplored North, labeled “Here Be Dragons". Here, north is the northwest of the U.S., though still south of their snowy homeland. As marvelously and meticulously created by WETA, the flying, furry mammal can also invisibly camouflage into the scenery, which, especially in 3-D, looks most like WETA’s native New Zealand, as they showed us in Lord of the Rings. Repeated several times as the story’s leit motif, “The Dragon Song/Go North” beautifully retells the legend, and is a sure bet to earn an Best Song Oscar nomination for the script co-writers in collaboration with Will Oldham, and fits in well with the other Americana songs threaded through Daniel Hart’s (literally) uplifting score.

Storytelling is a strong theme in the film. The legend of the dragon is first heard being told by the old woodcarver Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford), who tells the children of Millhaven of his dragon sighting long ago in the woods. The story in the children’s book Elliot Gets Lost is also what little Peter holds on to when his family car crashes - of course, it’s a Disney tradition for one or both parents to die at the beginning of a film. Five years later, that boy is now a resourceful wild child (Oakes Fegley), in a way that seems like a like a big wink at the other Disney re-make earlier this year The Jungle Book. Separated from his family, too, the lonely dragon has, well, taken him under his wings, and Pete names him “Elliot”, from his book.

The adult humans, unfortunately, are more blandly drawn, as if the well-known actors are carefully holding back for a PG-rated film. The storyteller’s daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a devoted forest ranger, but even she has not been able to keep the local sawmill, owned by her boyfriend Jack (Wes Bentley), from operating out of its authorized cutting area, into the uncharted section where Elliot and Pete have been happily hiding. The villain of the piece is Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban), who wants to expand their failing business -- let alone use his second amendment hunter rights to cash in on the dragon during amusing hide-and-seek and thrilling chases. But even he is a bad guy only in the way the brother is the villain in Field of Dreams, until he can believe in magic, too.

Both Pete and Elliott learn the importance of family love. Besides Pete enjoying showing off his forest skills to Jack’s also motherless daughter Natalie (the appealing Oona Laurence), young Fegley in a very moving, irresistibly heartfelt scene, well communicates Pete’s realization that for all his survivalist triumphs he really needs a mother. The tacked-on parallel epilogue for Elliott is at least visually irresistible and emotionally satisfying.

There’s an implicit serious environmental message about the difficulties of balancing preservation of forests with providing logging jobs (and the financial difficulties this admirably integrated business may be due to employing many more men than any other mill). But I also realized that in seeing Sundance founder Redford’s face in too many close-ups in 3-D that I may have been imputing more environmental significance than was explicitly said.

While I still think that the angry dragon’s fire would singe his inappropriate fur, this new version of Pete’s Dragon is a pleasing, lovely-looking family film, especially if you need to get the kids into air conditioning this week. But after next week, anyone should choose Kubo and the Two Strings.



NB: This review is in fulfillment of Disney’s requirement that I post a review in order to be kept on their invitation list for press screenings.



August 12, 2016



Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online and the Alliance of Women Film Journalists. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

< dd>Since August 2006, edited versions of most of my reviews of documentaries/indie/foreign films are at Film-Forward; since 2012, festival overviews at FilmFestivalTraveler; and, since 2016, coverage of women-made films at FF2 Media. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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