Re­view: ‘Pete’s Dragon’ a gen­tle respite from su­per­hero flicks

Sun.Star Cebu Weekend - - Contents - By Jake Coyle AP Film Writer

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” 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.

Few may 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 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. Spiel­berg-light, you 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 El­liot. 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 El­liot. As far as CGI crea­tures go, El­liot is an ir­re­sistible one. Furry as a fair­way, he’s like an enor­mous emer­ald­green 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 El­liot and ul­ti­mately leads to the dragon’s dis­cov­ery.

Grace coaxes El­liot 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-tot­ting lum­ber­jack — into the for­est that si­mul­ta­ne­ously be­gins flush­ing out Pete and El­liot 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 en­vi­ron­ment-friendly love for the beau­ti­ful and ex­otic splen­dors of na­ture. When com­pet­ing in­ter­ests come for El­liot, 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. Three stars out of four.

(Dis­ney via AP)

This im­age re­leased by Dis­ney shows Oona Lau­rence as Natalie (left) and Oakes Fe­g­ley as Pete (right) with El­liot the dragon, in a scene from “Pete’s Dragon.”

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