An earnest tale of a green-winged won­der

China Daily (Canada) - - NEWS CAPSULE - By AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS in New York

Af­ter an ex­haust­ing sum­mer buf­fet of set pieces, superheroes and what­ever s-word you might use for Sui­cide Squad, the gen­tle Pete’s Dragon, to be re­leased on Fri­day, is a wel­come palate cleanser.

Where other sum­mer movies are chest-thump­ing, it’s quiet; where oth­ers are brashly cyn­i­cal, it’s sweetly sin­cere; where oth­ers are lack­ing in gi­ant cud­dly dragons, Pete’s Dragon has one.

Few­may re­mem­ber the 1977 Dis­ney orig­i­nal, in which a young boy’s best friend was a bub­bly dragon in­vis­i­ble to oth­ers. As part of Dis­ney’s con­tin­u­ing ef­fort to re­make its an­i­mated clas­sics in live-ac­tion, Pete’s Dragon has been con­fi­dently re­born as an earnest tale of a green-winged won­der.

David Low­ery, a veteran of the in­de­pen­dent film world and the di­rec­tor of the lyri­cal crime drama Ain’t Them Bod­ies Saints, in­her­its a far big­ger film. But his Pete’s Dragon still main­tains the home­spun feel of an Amer­i­can fa­ble. Spiel­ber­gyou might call it.

The film be­gins, in the Bambi tra­di­tion, in parental tragedy. Pete’s fam­ily is driv­ing through a re­mote Pa­cific North­west for­est with Pete nes­tled in the back­seat of the sta­tion wagon, read­ing a chil­dren’s book about a dog named El­liott. A deer sprints out and, in po­etic slow-mo­tion, the grav­ity of the car’s in­te­rior is up­ended. The car flips off the road and Pete stag­gers from the crash.

Flash­ing for­ward six years, Pete (Oakes Fe­g­ley) is a wild 10-year-old or­phan liv­ing in the woods alone ex­cept for his mag­i­cal com­pan­ion, the dragon El­liott. As far as CGI crea­tures go, El­liott is an ir­re­sistible one. Furry as a fair­way, he’s like an enor­mous emer­ald-green puppy. Far from the Game of Thrones dragon va­ri­ety, he’s more adept at chas­ing his own tail than breath­ing fire.

He’s also the sub­ject of lo­cal folk­lore, mostly as told by Robert Red­ford’s wood-carv­ing sto­ry­teller. But it’s his for­est ranger daugh­ter Grace (Bryce Dal­las Howard) that first en­coun­ters El­liott and ul­ti­mately leads to the dragon’s dis­cov­ery.

Grace coaxes El­liott back into so­ci­ety and into the fold of her fam­ily. She has a daugh­ter, Natalie (Oona Lau­rence) and lum­ber mill-run­ning hus­band Jack (Wes Bent­ley). It’s the push by a log­ging com­pany — where Jack’s brother, Gavin (Karl Ur­ban) is a gun-tot­ing lum­ber­jack — into the for­est that si­mul­ta­ne­ously be­gins flush­ing out Pete and El­liott from their home in the trees.

The lush for­est (New Zealand, again, sub­bing for North Amer­ica) reigns over Pete’s Dragon, a tale scored with soft blue­grass and ex­ud­ing an en­vi­ron­men­tally friendly love for the beau­ti­ful and ex­otic splen­dors of na­ture. When com­pet­ing in­ter­ests come for El­liott, they are re­ally fight­ing for the soul of the for­est.

There are Spiel­ber­gian ges­tures here of magic and fam­ily and faith, per­haps bet­ter or­ches­trated than Spiel­berg’s own re­cent try at a Dis­ney film, The BFG. But it’s miss­ing a spark, a sense of dan­ger and maybe a lit­tle hu­mor.

The lean sim­plic­ity of Pete’s Dragon is its great­est at­tribute and its weak­ness. It doesn’t quite achieve liftoff un­til the film’s fi­nal mo­ments. But it does at last catch flight, fi­nally soar­ing be­yond its hum­ble folksi­ness.

Pete’s Dragon, aWalt Dis­ney Co re­lease, is rated PG by the Mo­tion Pic­ture As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica for “ac­tion, peril and brief lan­guage”.

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