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What is faith? It could be said that faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see. Even when others do not believe, faith does define the human condition. This is true in the life of Meacham (Robert Redford), who lives in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. He believes that a dragon lives in the deep recesses of the forest. His faith is not a blind faith, but one based in his own personal contact with the magical beast, but he has a hard time convincing others. Even though he is relegated to sharing his tale of magical beasts with the children of the community until the little community is turned upside down with a discovery by his daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard). As a park ranger, she finds Pete (Oakes Fegley), a 10-year-old orphan amongst the trees of the forest. As the mystery unfolds of the boy’s survival story, Meacham’s fables become more of a reality to their family and the small logging community.
For fans of the 1977 musical, Pete’s Dragon, this retelling of the friendship between a boy and his dragon is similar in title only. This does not diminish the magical journey told by relatively unknown director, David Lowery. His reimagining of Elliott the Dragon and Pete’s connection still contains the emotional power of the original without having to incorporate musical numbers. There is a strong need for audiences to engage their suspension of disbelief to accept the inability of the small community to come in contact with the boy and his furry friend for a decade. Yet, Lowery did make this plausible due to his placement of the story in the pre-internet era of the 1970’s.
Pete’s Dragon suffers from the inevitable comparison to the other Disney release, The Jungle Book. The dragon tale struggles to rise to the same cinematic level of Mowgli’s adventure. The key difference is the development of the characters surrounding the boy at the heart of these wilderness coming of age plot lines. Even though the animals in The Jungle Book were all computer generated, they provide more dimensional value than many of the human characters of Pete’s Dragon. Thankfully the love between Pete and Elliot provided enough magic to keep things alive and propels the story along. There is an environmentalist undercurrent that almost derails the film, but Lowery manages to bring the focus back to the human element and wraps things up nicely in the end. Redford, Howard and Karl Urban provide some of the acting credibility for the overall experience, but their roles were two dimensional in comparison of the central theme of the boy and his dragon. Oakes Fegley does manage to carry the film with a huge boost of his green best friend.
What is refreshing to see is Disney getting back to well-told, straightforward stories that centre on family and their value. Pete’s Dragon is not trailblazing, but even though most of the story and the visuals have been experienced in other films, it is a good alternative for families looking for an enjoyable night at the cinema. Not all films need to push the barriers of filmmaking, but they do need to entertain their target audience and this forest excursion delivers on many levels. A refreshing choice for parents of small children.