A 4-year-old boy sits in the backseat as his parents drive through the sun-dappled Pacific Northwest forest. “We’re on an adventure,” his mother tells him, and when the boy asks if the adventure won’t be a little bit scary, his dad smiles in the rearview mirror. An adventure, he tells his son, often requires bravery.
Moments later, the boy watches curiously as everything turns upside down around him, the car cartwheeling off the road and into the woods. Pete’s Dragon, Disney’s soulful remake of its whimsical 1977 live-action/animated musical, follows that boy on his adventure, one in which his bravery will be tested and his world will keep turning upside down. Directed with care by David Lowery and co-written by Lowery and Toby Halbrooks, Pete’s Dragon is a gentle, understated family adventure, one that feels notably unlike the simplistically sentimental product the Disney imprimatur might lead you to expect.
Six years after the accident that claimed his parents’ lives, Pete (played at 10 by Oakes Fegley) is a wild child living deep in the woods. How has he survived this long? He’s protected by an enormous dragon, a green, furry, flying creature Pete has named Elliot. The two sleep together, eat together, and—in a bravura sequence early in the film—play together, splashing through creeks and leaping through trees in unabashed delight. At first these scenes of a feral, dirt-streaked boy leaping from branch to branch call to mind Disney’s own recent live-action Jungle Book, but when Pete and Elliot take flight, the film (especially viewed in 3-D) delivers a vertiginous exhilaration that’s straight out of Hayao Miyazaki.
It’s notable that we see Elliot the dragon immediately in Pete’s Dragon; there are very few of the Snuffleupagus-style misunderstandings that served as the plot engine of the original 1977 film, and which drove me crazy as a kid. Instead, the dragon of Millhaven is a kind of local legend, joked about by everyone but taken seriously by kindly old Meacham (Robert Redford), who likes to tell the story of his long-ago encounter with the dragon to scare local kids. When Meacham’s dubious daughter, park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), discovers Pete out in the forest, she immediately opens her heart and family to him. He responds, and naturally wants his new friends to meet his old friend Elliot. And Elliot appears.
The awe with which Grace, her fiancé (Wes Bentley), and their daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) greet Elliot’s emergence from the cave he calls home will be shared by young viewers. Elliot is a marvel: He’s immense and solid and truly seems, unlike many computer-generated characters, to occupy the exact same space as the humans with whom he interacts. In great part that’s because Lowery and his effects team have taken such care to make Elliot feel a part of the dramatic woodland landscape in which he’s situated: He’s an animal at home in the wild, and even when he’s not enchantedly invisible he blends beautifully into his environment. (Majestic New Zealand stands in for the majestic Northwest.) It also helps that the movie conveys respect for the grandeur and mystery of the wilderness without pushing an explicitly environmentalist theme. It’s far more interested in the friendship between man and animal and in allowing that relationship to spread its wings and soar.
The plot of Pete’s Dragon is pleasingly simple: Pete gets lost, Pete gets found, Elliot gets captured (in a frightening, remarkable scene that kids will remember long after the movie has ended), Elliot gets rescued. Given its threadbare plot and often quite simple dialogue, the movie could have felt thin. But Pete’s Dragon has a secret weapon: Redford, who, at 79, still commands the screen with movie-star magnetism and gives the entire enterprise a certain gravity. More than most films, it mixes old-style movie magic with new, letting viewers see things that would have been impossible to put on a screen even five years before, while still allowing Redford to deliver a beautifully plainspoken performance that would have worked in a film from the classic Hollywood era.
Describing his long-ago meeting with the Millhaven dragon, Meacham explains to his daughter that he didn’t fire his gun at the beast because he felt a kind of magic in the air. He can’t explain it, he says. It’s just there. Pete’s Dragon doesn’t try to explain its magic either. But at the satisfying conclusion of this lovely family film, parents and children will be united in their belief that it’s real.