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Oakes Fegley stars in ‘Pete’s Dragon’

For what feels like forever, we have been hearing the phrase, “Make America Great Again.” It seems unlikely that anything remotely great would come from following that specific pledge, but it does find some truth in the latest live-action/reboot/remake/rehash by Disney, Pete’s Dragon, which feels wholeheartedly dependent to the core of that phrase.

In a time when many seem to be striving to recapture American values, this heartwarming film from writer/director David Lowery accomplishes the goal and all while working within a format that has been wrought with uniformity for so long.

The movie is a remake of the 1977 film of the same name (even though you may not remember it) and follows a young boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley), who is thrust onto his own after a tragic car crash claims the lives of his parents. The woods are frightening at first, but he is saved by the lovable dragon, who he names Elliot, and starts his life hidden from civilization.

Six years later, he is discovered by Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who takes custody of him as the town tries to decide what to do with the young boy.

We’ve seen live-action remakes from the House of Mouse recently whether it was Cinderella, The Jungle Book, or next year’s Beauty and the Beast, but this one seemed like the most left field choice. It comes from forgettable entry from the studio, and one that wasn’t well-received the first time around. But unlike the previous examples, there is a sincerity that glides through Pete’s Dragon — creating a breathless comfort missing from larger movies this year.

The entire feature feels like something cropped out of old Hollywood — a resoundingly gentle tale of boy and his pet, sweeping visuals that extenuate the American landscape, and colorful characters. There is something warm about Pete’s Dragon, which takes place in what seems like the Pacific Northwest in the fall. The leaves are falling from the orange-colored trees, everyone is in a winter coat, and the cool in the air begs for cocoa to be drank while watching it.

If Lowery succeeded in anything with this film, it is setting the right ambiance for a family film. The ambition is subtle and you can tell there is clearly some care being put into telling this story. The narrative evokes comparisons to E.T. or more recently elements of the Netflix series, Stranger Things, but the feeling seems new.

That’s a word you hear a lot when talking about anything artistic — feeling. It usually acts as a placeholder for an explanation into what we truly interpret from a work of art, but it also is a useful tool in dictating what works about it. Nothing aesthetically jumps out at you with Pete’s Dragon (though the visuals, by cinematographer Bojan Bazelli, are a pastoral beauty), but it feels like something good.

I mention the statement, “Make America Great Again,” because I’m not sure who is saying it really understand what is great about the country. It seems more of a statement in line with this film, which exudes inspiration and curiosity. As Elliot is revealed more to the world, he is met with some hostility, but also some faces who are genuinely interested in learning more about this creature.

Bryce Dallas Howard’s Grace is a character that very much lives up to her name as she is brimming with warmth and understanding. Even as her father (played by Robert Redford) seems to be crazy because of his theories on the dragon in the woods, there is still that sense of wonder behind her wall of truth. She has knowledge and facts that lead her life, but curiosity (and a helping of movie make believe) helps to move her character forward.

We are a country built on curiosity and the notion to explore the unknown, even when it is somewhat terrifying. Pete’s Dragon finds a home for this process in a procedural family story, which may be the most ambitious quality of all. Sincerity is hard to come by with studio pictures, but Pete’s Dragon is brimming with it. The pessimists will knock the logo playing before the film, but that isn’t the only banner it flies.

Pete’s Dragon is a way to make America great again in all the right ways and its genuine nature is what is so appealing. While it is difficult to get past its financier, director David Lowery captures a spirit that seems to be lacking in larger filmmaking recently — joy. We need some more joy in our movies, and this film is here to lead the charge.

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