In making a film, it takes some industrial strength confidence to include an explicit promise of magic. I don’t mean constructing a story around a boy wizard or some other spinner of spells, fancifully warping reality with the behind the scenes support of special effects technicians. I’m referring to the magic of the soul, the kind that stirs emotions and sets usually stolid hearts atingle. Having a character onscreen speak of such a transporting feeling is roughly akin to making a promise that a fictional piece of art that factors into a film’s narrative — a poem, a painting, a song — is a work of a genius. It is doomed to disappoint. So spare a bit of admiration for the creators behind the new film Pete’s Dragon. Without an evident tremor of hesitation, they have a sage townsman named Meacham (Robert Redford) say the sight of the film’s titular beast brings the sensation of magic. What’s really impressive is that the filmmakers deliver on that striking promise.
Pete’s Dragon is based on the 1977 Disney film of the same name, though only the most basic elements have been carried forward. In this instance, Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a boy who was simultaneously orphaned and stranded in the heavily wooded landscape years earlier. Following a car accident, he was almost immediately befriended and protected by a mammoth green dragon, dubbed Elliott by the boy, the name drawn from a lost pooch in a storybook that is one of the few possessions from his prior life. The plot truly kicks in when the boy is discovered by a forest ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard), setting off a similar revelation of the majestic creature that had previously been the source of local tall tales and folk songs.
Director David Lowery travels a well-worn path, constructing the screenplay co-credited to Toby Halbrooks around expected elements: the importance of family in all its forms, the villainous figure who wants to exploit the dragon, the importance of hanging onto a sense of wonder in a cynical age. The story may be familiar — and spotted with plot holes for anyone who cares to give it the most casually attentive scrutiny — but it has a gentle, thoughtful, caring tone that is increasingly rare, especially for films pitched at the younger set. Best as I can tell, modern kiddie flicks never stop jabbering, snatching fiercely at attentions mightily prone to distraction. Pete’s Dragon aims for something different. It is committed to tenderness and beauty, opening its heart wide to anyone ready to embrace it. Whether this works for its intended demographic is an open question (there were certainly a lot of restless runts at the packed showing I attended), but I took it in with gratitude.
In particular, Pete’s Dragon has an emotional resonance that lasts beyond its closing credits, growing in strength as it settles in the memory. I suspect that’s attributable to the way Lowery strives for a certain timelessness to the storytelling, setting it in the kind of northwestern logging town that clasps to enduring tradition and carefully developing an unspecified era free of cellphones and other intrusive electronics. Even as the film washes the screen, it feels like a reminiscence made real, with all the warmth built right in.