If your kids can get through the first five minutes of Pete’s Dragon (which rank right up there with the shooting of Bambi’s mother on the Disney trauma-o-meter), then you won’t find a sweeter family film for the waning days of summer. As with its equally charming The Jungle Book back in April, the Mouse House has skillfully rummaged through its mothballed back catalog and given a 21st-century makeover to one of its lesser, goofier titles, with magical results. (I can’t wait to see what they do with The Aristocats, should they dig that deep.)
After a tragedy at the outset of the film leaves young Pete alone and frightened deep in the Pacific Northwest forest, he’s rescued and befriended by an enormous, moss-green fur-covered dragon, whom he names Elliott after the dog from his favorite kids’ book. Like The Jungle Book’s Mowgli, Pete grows into a happily innocent 10-year-old ragamuffin (Oakes Fegley), romping through the woods with his winged gentle-giant pal. At least until he’s spotted by Bryce Dallas Howard’s park ranger and taken back to “civilization,” leaving his oversize friend to whimper like Chewbacca whenever something bad happened to Han Solo.
There isn’t a lot that’s unexpected here, like a few too-obvious characterizations (loggers = evil; environmentalists = saints). But it’s a simple story, heartwarmingly told. It doesn’t hurt that Robert Redford — as Howard’s eccentric father, who once spotted a dragon himself — triggers your tear ducts every time he shares a wise memory of childlike wonder, either. Is Pete’s Dragon shamelessly sentimental and manipulative? You bet. But it works so well that you won’t care a bit. B+