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'Pete's Dragon' is a celebration of the family
Bryce Dallas Howard is Grace and Oakes Fegley is Pete in Disney's "Pete's Dragon," the adventure of an orphaned boy and his best friend Elliot, who just so happens to be a dragon. - photo by Jim Bennett
I saw a good family movie the other night.

Thats quite an amazing thing, given the cinematic marketplace at the moment. (I recently saw X-Men: Apocalypse and Suicide Squad, too. Those are not good movies, let alone good family movies.) But since it was my birthday last week, we wanted to go see something that everyone could enjoy, which is why we found ourselves watching Petes Dragon despite not knowing much about it.

I vaguely remembered the hokey original 1977 film, to which this new movie bears no resemblance whatsoever. I had also heard good things about it, and a friend of mine from my college days is in it. (Shout out to fellow USC theater school alum Steve Barr, who plays a cop. His part is small but significant, and he has the hands-down funniest moment in the film. Watch for it it involves a police radio.) There were other movies that everyone wanted to see. I was keen on watching Florence Foster Jenkins, and the kids were more interested in something with superheroes in it. But after much haggling, Petes Dragon was the acceptable, if unexciting, consensus.

Thats the downside of family films. Generally speaking, theyre both clean and boring. The word family, when applied as an adjective to a motion picture, is often synonymous with the word bland. Much to my delight, Petes Dragon was anything but bland. It was a movie that embraced the very concept of family as something vital, something that each of us hungers to find on a very primal level.

The story begins with tragedy, as young Pete loses his loving parents in a rollover crash in the middle of the woods. Lost and alone, he is befriended by a massive, fuzzy green dragon he calls Elliot, the name of the dog in the storybook he was reading in the car. The legend of the dragon is that he is separated from his own family from the mountains of the North. So two very different orphans find each other and, both broken and alone, create a makeshift family of their own.

The story jumps ahead six years when Grace Meacham, a forest ranger played by Bryce Dallas Howard, discovers Pete running through the trees. Her father, portrayed in a refreshingly humble performance by Robert Redford, has been telling people for years that he saw a dragon in the woods years before, but no one believes him. Graces daughter befriends Pete, who is all but adopted into the Meacham family almost instantly. The writers play up the tension between Petes life in the wild with his discovery of what it means to have a sister and parents. So much of modern cinema is devoted to deconstructing the nuclear family that it feels almost radical to see a major Hollywood release celebrating a childs intrinsic yearning for a mother and a father.

Thats not to say that Petes Dragon is preachy or didactic on the subject. In many ways, its also a recognition that families can be forged in even the most trying circumstances, as the familial bond between boy and dragon makes clear. Its also not a perfect movie by any means, as the conflict precipitated by Karl Urbans lumberjack character is kind of stupid. (If you were to discover something as strange and wondrous as a dragon in the woods, would your first thought be, Lets go hunting? Yeah, me neither.)

Still, this was a movie that should have been pablum. It wasnt. It was that rarest of rare things a genuine family film in the very best sense of the word.
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