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THE SUMMER’S BEST FAMILY FILM: ‘PETE’S DRAGON’

Pete’s Dragon has a vital ingredient that many fantasy films lack: a true sense of wonder. For that we must thank director and co-writer David Lowery, a newcomer to mainstream moviemaking who is best known for the indie release Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013). He has an understanding of how to make a modern Disney film that checks all the right boxes and leaves us fully satisfied. No wonder the studio has signed him to pilot their upcoming remake of Peter Pan.

Wide-eyed Oakes Fegley plays Pete, a little boy who is forced to fend for himself in the dense forest of the Pacific Northwest. His only friend and ally is a furry, playful dragon named Elliot. In the nearest town, old-timer Robert Redford has spun stories for years about his encounter with a dragon, but only the neighborhood kids believe him—certainly not his daughter, park ranger Bryce Dallas Howard. She soon has reason to change her tune.

Sincere performances help a lot but Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks give the actors good material to work with. Karl Urban plays the nominal villain but he isn’t really a bad guy, just someone who feels the need to prove himself alongside his brother, lumber company manager Wes Bentley. By populating the story with recognizable human beings instead of “types,” Lowery and Halbrooks have created a film that grownups can enjoy alongside kids.

Elliot-Pete's Dragon

(Courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

As for Elliot the dragon, his wholly original design—and fur—take some getting used to, but his “performance” is winning and his interaction with Pete is completely believable. Score another point for the geniuses at Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital who bring this character and his environment to life so well.

As for comparisons with the 1977 Disney film of the same name, I remember seeing Pete’s Dragon at Radio City Music Hall in Manhattan and leaving with a throbbing headache. I also thought Elliot was singularly unattractive. By distancing itself from the story, setting, and design of the original, this movie stands on its own and earns its stripes. Don’t let this one get away: it’s the best family entertainment of the summer.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at leonardmaltin.com. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

One comment

  1. spencer says:

    To Leonard, where is the likely *Oscar contender “HELL OR HIGH WATER?”

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