Pete’s Dragon: Disney via Malick (late Malick)

Petes-Dragon-Movie-Disney-2016

Pete’s Dragon
Directed by David Lowery
Opens August 12

Pete’s Dragon may be the best entry so far in Disney’s worst ongoing franchise: the handsome, empty repainting of their catalog titles. It’s this movie in particular that necessitates the use of “catalog titles” rather than “classics”; the original 1977 Pete’s Dragon is, to my recollection, one of the studio’s more negligible and tedious hybrid movies of the 70s, with treacly songs and Mickey Rooney and a pasted-on-the-frame cartoon dragon who is, if I may be so bold, a bit of a dumbass. The new version has been refashioned as sort of a kiddie Malick—even moreso than writer-director David Lowery’s previous picture, Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.

Lowery rewrites Pete (Oakes Fegley) from a 70s-era Disney orphan to a present-day Disney feral-child—the studio’s third such hero in less than a year, after The Good Dinosaur and the Jungle Book redo. Pete is still orphaned, quickly and near-lyrically, by a car crash, after which he’s adopted by a fuzzy, slightly clumsy dragon from the nearby woods. Years later, Pete is discovered by a forest ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) whose father (Robert Redford) tells stories of a dragon that sounds suspiciously like Pete’s description of his sometimes-invisible best friend, whom he has christened Elliot.

There’s another, non-feral child (Oona Laurence), her flannel-clad dad (Wes Bentley), and a bad guy (Karl Urban) who wants to capture this mysterious creature for his own gain, but not a whole lot happens in Pete’s Dragon, which runs a full half-hour shorter than the original cut of the 77 film (it was trimmed for at least one theatrical re-release). The lack of frenetic action is a blessed relief; Lowery uses the very presence of a cuddly, lovable dragon that shimmers in and out of view to bribe kids into sitting still, at least theoretically. The scenes that integrate Pete and Elliot into the small-town period setting (the year isn’t specified, but there’s a noticeable lack of modern-looking technology) have a lovely sense of low-key wonder, particularly when a spooked Pete absconds from a hospital and the camera follows his running, leaping journey through the streets of civilization as he tries to find his way back to the forest. Later, a pair of overhead shots capture Pete sticking his head out of a car, a bridge and a river rushing below him, and Elliot strapped sadly to a flatbed truck, Kong-style. Simple stuff, and very effective.

It’s this simplicity, though, that keeps the movie from matching obvious forerunners like E.T. or The Iron Giant. Those movies have lovingly detailed moments of humor and complexity between the human kid and the otherworldly pal, so that when their stories kick into tearjerker mode, there’s a depth and range of feelings beneath the awe and awwww. Lowery goes for the awe too quickly and too often, the Daniel Hart score prioritizing generic soaring over the characters themselves. The effect, at least for me, is curiously unmoving. The relationship between Pete and Elliot is certainly adorable, but despite its Spielbergian orchestrations, it has the approximate profundity of a TV commercial. The gap between Pete’s removal from society around age five and his reintroduction around ten gets filled without much trouble. There’s little sense of change, or sacrifice, or even of simple growing up. Pete’s Dragon can easily replace the ’77 version in the Disney vault, and might even segue some adventurous young viewers into more contemplative fare. The movie itself, though, is more a simulation of feeling than an expression of it.

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