Disney’s new ‘Pete’s Dragon’ makes only slight improvements

Pete (right) and his dragon Elliot make a new friend (Oona Laurence).

Two and a half stars

Pete's DragonOakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard, Karl Urban. Directed by David Lowery. Rated PG. Opens Friday citywide.

The 1977 Disney movie Pete’s Dragon is not one of the studio’s top-tier family classics. It’s an overlong, annoying, clumsy musical with mostly useless, repetitive songs and a scattered plot that makes little sense. It’s notable primarily for its early work from legendary animator Don Bluth and its Oscar-nominated song “Candle on the Water,” which became a minor adult contemporary hit for Helen Reddy. Unlike most of the older movies Disney is busy remaking, Pete’s Dragon has plenty of room for improvement.

And the new version from director and co-writer David Lowery is an improvement, although not as much of one as anybody who saw Lowery’s breathtaking and heartbreaking 2013 feature Ain’t Them Bodies Saints might have hoped for. With Saints, Lowery made a better Terrence Malick movie than Malick has made in years, and with Pete’s Dragon, he seems to be putting forth the same effort to channel the wide-eyed sincerity of early Steven Spielberg (something Spielberg himself failed to capture in his own Disney movie, The BFG, earlier this summer). But Lowery’s version of Pete’s Dragon is never as transcendent as his own previous film, nor is it as goofy and awkward as the original.

Instead it’s pleasant and entirely forgettable, with a bland hero (young orphan Pete, played by Oakes Fegley) and his bland CGI dragon sidekick (named Elliot) befriending some bland adults in a bland small town and overcoming a villain who’s barely even villainous. Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks take only the basic elements of the original (mercifully, they’ve eliminated all the songs), making Pete into a feral child similar to The Jungle Book’s Mowgli, and the silly, googly-eyed Elliot (who was a traditionally animated element inserted into the live action of the original movie) into a larger, more monstrous beast, with more realistic features. Bryce Dallas Howard, Wes Bentley and Robert Redford play the friendly adults who discover Pete in the forest outside their Oregon logging town, and Karl Urban plays the hotheaded (but ultimately well-intentioned) logger out to capture Elliot.

Aside from a contrived moment of peril at the climax, the story is decidedly low-stakes, but Lowery and Halbrooks haven’t created characters distinctive enough to carry a movie with so little plot momentum. Fegley is less irritating than original Pete Sean Marshall, but making Pete skittish and withdrawn means he has less of a chance to make an impression on the audience. The adults play mostly reactive roles, and do a fine job of it (Redford in particular is wonderfully folksy in his somewhat small part) without any lasting impact. With the sun-dappled images and the lush forest setting, Lowery aims for a sense of wonder and majesty, but his story never really gets off the ground.

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