Earlier this week, I praised the young heroes of “Stranger Things” and “Little Men,” two of summer’s finest pop culture offerings. The protagonists’ ingenuity in the face of stubborn, skeptical adults is enough to ward off monsters of all stripes. This weekend, another movie joins their ranks: “Pete’s Dragon,” which pits the titular woodland kid against egotists who hope to profit off his bestial pal’s mystifying existence.
“Pete’s Dragon” is a live-action reboot of the 1977 sing-along that has assumed second-tier status in the Disney canon. The new version, an indie-to-blockbuster transition for “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” maestro David Lowery, is superior, and I say that as someone who enjoyed the original as a youngster. Its excellence makes up for the mediocrity of Disney’s other two summer releases, “Finding Dory” and “The BFG.” In practice, it’s more on par with April’s “The Jungle Book,” channeling a similar serenity from which noisier cinematic spectacles could take pointers.
There’s a great deal to admire about “Pete’s Dragon,” which draws the most heinous summer movie season in recent memory to a stronger close. After almost every reboot or sequel faltered, it’s nice to cling to this hopeful note. Lowery’s $65 million update is a small life raft battling the tides of Hollywood’s bromidic mainstream output. It’s also a cathartic tearjerker that offers a comfort we desperately need amid the collective debris of 2016.
“Pete’s Dragon” starts with a car crash that orphans 4-year-old Pete. Stranded in a dense woods, the panicked tot is comforted by the arrival of a doe-eyed green dragon that quickly becomes his protector. So begins a buddy tale of awe-inducing magnitude. But this is not a redux of “The Jungle Book,” which also fixated on a young boy aging in the wilderness. The dragon, whom Pete names Elliott, is nonverbal and uninvolved in whatever creature politics might haunt his homeland. In keeping, Lowery’s sense of setting is a marvel. The semi-feral Pete scales trees and flounces through nature in front of a camera that treats him like a slice of meditative bliss. By the time the film fast-forwards six years, Pete’s sad origin story has become the opposite ― he is liberated by his ignorance of society’s conventions. All he needs is the company of his pal Elliott.
To boot, the forest is a venerated part of this unnamed city, which boasts nary a cell phone or other significant marker of time. (There’s a record player in one scene, but is that an indicator of era or quaintness?) A devoted park ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) knows the thicket’s ins and outs, and courtesy of her rosy father (Robert Redford), she also knows the lore about an elusive dragon that roams through it. But when certain townsfolk learn that Elliott is indeed real, they decide he is a better source of revenue than he is wonderment. The movie’s second half finds Pete learning about life outside the woods, and then, in an indictment of greedy capitalism, trying to rescue his colossal friend from being caged and displayed. There’s a chase sequence that will thrill kids, but it’s hardly the highlight. That belongs to the many wordless moments, roving scenes of discovery that present a world far grander than the one outside of your theater’s four walls.
The stateliest part of “Pete’s Dragon”? It does not showboat or traffic in cheap nostalgia. The project justifies its existence from the opening frame. It’s a sweet yarn about nice people willing to believe in the so-called magic of a storied dragon. Pete's adult support is more steadfast than that of the "Little Men” and “Stranger Things" protagonists, but this movie captures the same enterprise that comes with childlike wonder. By the time Redford closes the film with a voice-over about growing up, “Pete’s Dragon” will have already won you over. It wears earnestness on its verdant sleeve, and the story is better for it. A little soul is what this summer needs.