Pete’s Dragon ***1/2

A graceful, intelligent family film that does its formula proud.

Is it worth $10? Yes

Growing up, I saw the original “Pete’s Dragon” once. All I remember is a musical number with a super close up of a neighing horse (frightening little me at the time), and a bleary eyed, drunken Mickey Rooney in a bar (still frightening big me today). The movie didn’t interest me then, and over the years, I was never tempted to revisit it; a remake, therefore, held little to no interest for me. I gave it a chance, though, and am glad I did. This new “Pete’s Dragon” is a wonderful movie that is also remarkably thoughtful and subtle.

On a road trip through the Pacific Northwest,  five year-old Pete (Oakes Fegley) is tragically orphaned. Alone and terrified in the middle of a deep forest, he comes into contact with the fantastical, a dragon. The two lost souls become a surrogate family, and years pass happily until Pete makes contact with a forest ranger, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard). Unaware of Elliot (even dragons have names), Grace attempts to solve Pete’s mysterious survival with the help of her father, Meacham (Robert Redford), and her boyfriend, Jack (Wes Bentley). Meanwhile, Jack’s brother, Gavin (Karl Urban) has a run in with Elliot and, in an act of hubris, attempts to hunt him down. 

Plot wise, there’s nothing in “Pete’s Dragon” that we haven’t seen before; however, it’s not the music that’s important, but how it’s played. The way that “Pete” navigates its plot is logical and honest. The characters make sense and so do their choices, and the movie’s big moments are earned and not callously manipulative.

The movie is remarkably subtle, and that restraint extends to all of the characters, even the de facto “villain,” Gavin. He’s not a bad guy, but a well-meaning person with a chip on his shoulder because he works for his younger brother who runs the town’s lumber mill. None of this is ever explicitly stated, though. It is revealed through visual queues, interactions, and small, offhand exchanges of dialogue. It’s refreshing to see a family film that implicitly trusts its audience to follow along.

Even the subtext is refreshing. At one point Robert Redford talks about his daughter and how she doesn’t believe in things that she can’t see. “Here we go again,” my brain warned, “another believers vs. non story, where the nons have to learn to believe again.” But it turns out to be about something much more personal than that, and the way that the storyline comes to fruition and is resolved is a thing of beauty that fulfills the cardinal rule of filmmaking: show, don’t tell.

And show the movie does. Yoda vernacular aside, this is a beautiful film, but in an intriguingly tossed off way. Some of the imagery is simply awe-inspiring: Elliot perched on a bridge’s superstructure at twilight, blasting scalding breaths of fire down onto it. Funny thing is, director David Lowery holds the shot just long enough to make its point and then cuts away rather quickly, rather than rubbing the audience’s nose in it. Somehow this lends the visuals an ephemeral quality that makes them even more beautiful.

If I have a problem with the movie, it’s one I have with most animal movies; inevitably, the animal star will be put into distress, and I hate seeing animals in distress (yes, even fantastical ones created entirely by computer graphics!). Though revealed in the trailers, a mild spoiler warning: Elliot is captured… of course. And of course, I could have done without that. My tastes lean to gently meandering family films like “My Neighbor Totoro,” and as Elliot was being shot with tranquilizer darts and a noose was slung over his neck, I wished the filmmakers would have emulated that movie and omitted this type of sequence. In all fairness, though, it does not last long and is certainly not wallowed in.

It also leads to the best part of the movie: Elliot’s rescue and escape, facilitated by Redford’s Meacham (among others). He is as effortlessly charming here as ever and proves, once again, my theory that Robert Redford makes every movie better just by being in it.

There’s so many positives that I’d still like to point out, but I’m running out of room, and you’re probably running out of patience. Rest assured,  “Pete’s Dragon” is a rarity. It’s a graceful family film that never condescends to children (okay, Elliot sneezes on Karl Urban and covers him in snot, but that’s it) and offers a myriad of pleasures for adults with subtle, intelligent storytelling, great acting, beautiful cinematography, and convincing special effects that make you completely empathize with a digital creation.

Just make sure you bring some Kleenex, you’re going to need them.