- DRAGON DEPARTURE: Director David Lowery ("St. Nick," "Ain't Them Bodies Saints") imbued the Disney remake's chimeric hero, Elliott, with the kinder, gentler parts of dragons past.
The film "Pete's Dragon" starts with the premise that a young boy orphaned in a grand American forest can nonetheless enjoy fantastic adventures when he befriends a mythical creature who lives deep in the woods. "Pete's Dragon" the mass commercial product, though, is banking on an appeal to parents and kids alike, that such a boy — a feral wolf-child cut off from technology who can scramble up trees at squirrel speeds — is the hero for our hyperconnected times. Or at least for a moment when TV's reigning dragon show is the last thing 10-year-olds should be watching, even with their parents.
So, before we talk about Pete, Brother of Dragons, let's look at Elliott, the raison d'etre of this perfectly serviceable all-ages adventure story. Far from the gangly bumbler of the 1977 original, the titular dragon in this version owes more perhaps to the luck dragon Falcor in "The Neverending Story," another staple of 1980s VHS collections.
The bond between Pete and Elliott is, in effect, the entire movie, and to make the realistic — i.e., non-cartoon — dragon as approachable as possible, Elliott is a chimera: doglike in his mood, almost lionlike in his motions, with a moss-colored coat reminiscent of Sulley, the tall blue lug of "Monsters, Inc." fame. He flies and clambers around the woods with minimal grace, has hazel-on-green people-style eyeballs, and exhibits an attention span befitting a little kid, as in a moment when he's hot on the scent of Pete, gets distracted momentarily by a passing butterfly, and then goes back to sleuthing. Oh, and he can become invisible, in a fashion (and with a sound effect) reminiscent of the Predator (hello again, '80s classics). In short, he's basically the ideal pet, or buddy, for playing wolf-child in the forest indefinitely.
The dragon's boy, Pete (Oakes Fegley), stuck in the woods after an accident, lives like an American Mowgli, somehow subsisting for years without aid of adult or school. Trouble comes when people press closer to the little cave-beneath-a-tree he calls home. A kindly ranger wanders nearby (Bryce Dallas Howard in her first film since dragon movie "Jurassic World") and Pete, curious, soon finds that she's only a few steps ahead of a logging operation. The lumberjacks include the hot-tempered Gavin (Karl Urban, or Bones in the new "Star Trek" films), who once he sees Elliott's footprint wants nothing more than to bag a dragon. The ranger's soon-to-be-stepdaughter (Oona Laurence) catches up to Pete and coaxes him to come back to town to kick it domestic-style for a while. Robert Redford makes an appearance as the hunter-mystic grandpa that everyone hopes they become one day.
Some intense action sequences notwithstanding, this is definitely a kids' movie. Pete was lost as a 5-year-old boy, after all, and his vocabulary stays fairly true to that age — not much of anything in the script, actually, would go over the head of an alert third-grader. This means there's not a whole lot of what you might describe as "conversations between grownups" to push the characterization forward. If you're looking for such old-fashioned storytelling conventions as "change over time" to kick in, well, this one might not hold up. The meat of this story takes place over just a couple of days. The arc of it you could probably guess early enough: People don't understand dragon. People threaten dragon. Boy and dragon have to help each other. Boy is hero, dragon is hero.
The story, though, is less important than the overall effect of the performances and the effects. Will it make kids fantasize about being a long-haired forest tyke who curls up each night with kindly dog-lion beast who can fly? Yeah, probably. "Pete's Dragon" doesn't offer just a heck of a lot more than that, but then, that's good daydream fuel, at any age.