Down with domesticated dragons. Pete’s Dragon sells itself as the story of a boy who buddies up to a fire-breathing lizard, but the beast is really just a dump truck–size dog. In his Pacific Northwest forest, Elliot frolics and pounces like a puppy and woofs like Chewbacca. Of course you love him. Who wouldn’t? Picture a pumped-up chow with soft green fur that matches the trees. Now picture the exec who said that scales might be too strange, as though asking kids to dream wasn’t the point.
Forty years ago, the original 1977 musical insisted audiences play pretend. This dragon sported a pink Beatles mop top and toddled around humming like a drunk grandpa. And Pete’s life is a Brothers Grimm nightmare. His foster parents literally abuse him as a slave, brandishing a bill of sale to prove he’s their property and singing about roasting him alive. Things don’t get much easier when he escapes. Pete befriends a grieving grown woman with a dead fiancé, and suffers the town’s scorn for mishaps he didn’t even do, from destroying the schoolhouse to scaring off all the fish. “That kid’s been nothing but bad luck,” accuses a local. When Pete tries to explain the dragon, a teacher smacks him with a ruler.
This new Pete’s Dragon trusts focus groups over children’s fantasies. Today’s version is more real — an odd goal given the title — while still seeming totally fake. Writer-director David Lowery has stripped out everything from the first, songs included, to study trauma. It’s a straightforward examination of an orphaned preschooler raised in the woods until he was 10, or really just an even more sober version of The Jungle Book, Disney’s first sad-kid-seeks-family flick of the summer season. (This is the fourth, if you’re keeping count — time for a new plot.) Lowery has young actor Oakes Fegley play the role like he wants Room star Jacob Tremblay’s Oscar nom. He’s a somber, wild-haired little man who’s forgotten all about toothbrushes and windows and balloons. When he’s ripped from the forest and thrust into the city, he doesn’t even have the words to explain his loss. He crouches in an alley and howls.
But Fegley’s heartbreaking performance is fused onto a marshmallow. Lowery overcompensates for the darkness in the script by making everything else soft and squishy. Life in the woods with Elliot is a dream. There’s no cold, no cuts, no bruises, no predators Pete can’t scare off with a scream. There’s no threat of starvation, though there’s not even any food. We never see them eat, but since fruits and berries are nonexistent, I’m just going to guess the suits vetoed showing Pete and Elliot chomp into a deer. The city is just as sweet. Pete meets well-meaning park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a clone of his dead mom, who adjusts him to society. Howard can’t do much with her beautiful, bland saint — she’s all empathy and no personality. Wes Bentley as Grace’s fiancé, Jack, is even flatter. If not for Bentley’s fascinating face, those eyebrows that grow more regal every year, you wouldn’t remember him at all, though Oona Laurence as his daughter is sturdy and sincere. And as Jack’s brother, Gavin, Karl Urban gets stuck as an outdoorsman villain who makes no sense at all. He just wants to capture the beast, and when Grace’s dad, Meacham (Robert Redford) asks him why, he stammers that he hasn’t got a clue.
We suspect Meacham is partially to blame. For decades, he’s been frightening kids with nonsense about a dragon with “eyes like hell.” No wonder Gavin grabs his gun. But Redford gives the role such saccharine grandpa charm that the film never has the guts to call him out on his lie. Instead, Redford and the rest of the cast are simply gifted hero shot after hero shot, patted on the back, and sent off to beam sunshine around town while the soundtrack plays cozy Americana folk.
Still, I think there’s a good director in David Lowery when he gets more coherent material. He has a gift for silent pauses, and an almost Spielbergian sense of childlike awe. I can’t stop picturing a slow-motion shot from the car wreck that opens the film: young Pete’s face in an upside-down station wagon, hair streaming and smile huge, in those last seconds before he’s aware of the change that’s hit him. And in those seconds, I saw a filmmaker with fresh energy, the kind of director who might someday make a movie with guts — or maybe even scales.