It’s a travesty that the description ‘family movie’ has been marooned by studios and the public alike as a juvenile and tasteless affair. Animated movies aside, the subgenre is no longer seen for its potential: to enrich the lives of all those who watch it, provide a nourishing dose of spectacle to the wide-eyed young audiences and sincere delight to the parents and older folks that accompany them.
“Pete’s Dragon,” opening nationwide tomorrow and the latest of Disney’s live-action remakes, has exactly that type of magic that’s been devoid at the cineplexes. I admittedly haven’t seen the original, one of Disney’s less-branded properties, so can only speak about how the current film stands. The title is a reference to our protagonist, Pete (Oakes Fegley), an orphaned boy who lives deep in the woods, alone with the green dragon, and for years has avoided human companionship. I expected the film to wait a long time to reveal the titular dragon as most movies would, but instead he’s introduced and shown right from the get-go, a nice device that reminds us this is their story, not the story of the outsider townspeople we’ll meet next. The dragon is shown early but its enchantment continually develops as stakes are raised. This introduction works as a way to immediately put us on our protagonist’s side: while the outsiders nearby don’t believe in such creatures, we as an audience do.
These outsiders are a well-cast ensemble of familiar actors, all living in small town U.S.A. Bryce Dallas Howard is Grace, the no-nonsense forest ranger who’s never seen a dragon. Her fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley) and brother-in-law Gavin (Karl Urban) are loggers encroaching upon the forest. Oona Laurence plays Jack’s daughter, Natalie, and continues to prove herself as one of the greatest current working child actors in this touching supporting performance. Lastly, the legend Robert Redford plays Grace’s wise father, Meacham, who shares the movies wisdom with a reverence that can only come from cinema’s finest in a role that likely was tailor-fitted to him.
Aside from Bentley’s character, who we don’t get too much of, this ensemble all shine in their respective roles, and each one is given the opportunity to grow as a character thanks to the adventure they’ll experience. There’s no need for crude humor or pandering kid jokes, our characters make the story come alive without lowering the bar. Time and time again the film respects our intelligence as viewers and develops with a certain grace that never takes us out of the story. It’s amazing that something simple and well-executed feels like a marvelous revelation in this case, but regardless I’m happy to have experienced it here.
I’m impressed at how easily the film could have diverted into overused tropes but doesn’t. From the moment the protagonists are established as loggers and rangers, I was waiting for the inevitable heavy-handed environmental message that always feels hypocritical coming from a major studio. As we learn more about Pete, I was ready for a certain orphan backstory that you’ll think has to be employed. But the film is above all that, it never succumbs to the on-the-nose mentality. Instead, these themes of wilderness/nature and mankind’s interference stay subdued knowing that within the context, all audiences are mature enough to understand what’s at stake.
And most of all, this is a beautiful story about what it means to grow up, perhaps the perfect theme for the genre. There’s even a feeling reminiscent of Room, one of last year’s finest entries, in the protagonist who similarly enters society for the first time, and the rest of us can relate to the emotion of life changing fast and taking on the new feelings while holding dear to the past. Rarely can a movie so smoothly depict an easily comprehensible storyline while also layering in meaningful themes to be understood differently by the many age groups who may all relate to varied experiences.
And on another note, only because I can speak about it, the 3D in this movie does no noticeable enhancing, so it isn’t worth the extra upcharge. The movie works great on its own, and I invite readers of all ages and interests to experience this treat; check your cynicism at the door and let the movie’s wonder and magic take you as it did for me.
At a time when both the world at large and my own personal experience feel like widespread compassion is shortchanged, “Pete’s Dragon” is an adventurous and triumphant return to those joyous feelings that make the world feel like a better place. Let this film serve as a benchmark for what a family movie can and should be: an emotional embrace of heartwarming adventure from start to finish.
“Pete’s Dragon” is rated PG for action, peril, and brief language. 102 minutes. In theaters nationwide tomorrow.