Right on cue, the Disney movie mill has churned out another high-quality film with a big-name cast, this time in the form of simple and frothy children’s film “Pete’s Dragon.” While the film is not altogether remarkable, it stands to argue that sometimes meeting expectations of mediocrity can be pleasing in its own right. With its own set of high and low moments, “Pete’s Dragon” boasts of childhood whimsy in the classic Disney fashion.
The film follows the titular character, a young boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley, “Boardwalk Empire”), who is orphaned and stranded in the woods after his parents die in a sudden car accident. After wandering around the forest alone and afraid, Pete is rescued by a friendly and impressively animated furry green dragon, whom he dubs Elliot. Fast forward six years and cue a classic Tarzan-esque scene of Pete, long-haired and loin-clothed, tromping through the forest with Elliot, carefree and uninhibited. How he’s survived for six years in the forest with no adult supervision is unimportant — the film offers a heartwarming picture of two lost souls who have created a home for themselves in the wilderness.
Pete’s status quo is interrupted by the introduction of a cast of human characters, including Natalie (Oona Laurence, “Southpaw”), a curious young girl; Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, “The Help”), the maternal forest ranger; and Meacham (Robert Redford, “A Walk in the Woods”), Grace’s folkloric father. Pete is discovered and reluctantly taken to the nearby town, and struggles to adjust to the civilized world in a stressful scene of sensory overload. As he begins to settle in with Grace and her family, Pete struggles to negotiate between his sense of belonging and his sense of home.
The largest blemish on an otherwise pleasant story is the film’s overarching conflict; Karl Urban (“Star Trek”) plays the antagonist with a disturbingly bloodthirsty quality that seems starkly out of place in a children’s movie. Urban’s character hunts, shoots, chains and keeps captive the harmless green dragon with admittedly zero motivation other than to prove he’s capable of doing it. The result is equally traumatizing and comical as Urban’s unmotivated violence serves no purpose other than to further the plot. Disney insists on creating a human villain with violent tendencies rather than delving deeper into internal psychological conflicts such as culture shock and what it means to belong.
For the most part, “Pete’s Dragon” is a charming adaption of its namesake children’s story, wrought with fantastical storybook charm. The score by Daniel Hart (“Comet”) is whimsical and infectious, and the gratuitous landscape shots of the North Pacific Forest are gorgeous. Furthermore, the film’s most prominent gold nugget is the ease with which the characters in the film accept the existence of the mythical creature. There is no conflict with what constitutes reality; for example, Pete’s crayon drawing of Elliot is not met with skepticism by Grace, but with curiosity. The film ultimately retains the theme that childhood belief in something that doesn’t seem plausible shouldn’t be ignored or downgraded, but explored and praised. The film stands out from other members of the children’s fantasy genre as it softly subverts the traditional development of skepticism to understanding, instead offering trust in the unbelievable. Simple and predictable, “Pete’s Dragon” isn’t the worst thing to be pumped out of Disney, nor is it the best. It simply gets the job done.