Review: “Pete’s Dragon”

4 out of 5 stars.

Disney’s remake of their 1977 live-action/animated musical “Pete’s Dragon” is the rare film that improves on the original — although, it is so different from the original that it is hard to believe both films are derived from the same source material. Out of that strange movie that has received mixed reaction from fans and critics over the years comes this simple yet touching story about a young boy finding his place in the world.

Directed by David Lowery, “Pete’s Dragon” opens in 1977. Five-year-old Pete is on a road trip with his parents. They are driving through the woods when Pete’s father swerves to avoid hitting a deer, crashing their car in a hauntingly gorgeous scene that sets up expectations for the rest of the film. Pete’s parents are killed, but he survives, pulling himself out of the wreckage and into the woods, where the lost boy encounters a huge green dragon. Pete ends up befriending the dragon and calling him Elliot, after a character in his favorite book.

Six years later, and the now eleven-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegley) is still living in the forest with Elliot. Draw by construction crews chopping down trees near his home, Pete is spotted by a young girl named Natalie (Oona Laurence), and brought into town to stay with her father Jack (Wes Bentley) and his girlfriend, a ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) who reminds Pete of his mother. Elliot’s existence has long been a legend in the town, perpetuated by the skeptical Grace’s father Meacham (Robert Redford), so when Jack’s brother Gavin (Karl Urban) discovers Elliot, he immediately sets about trying to capture him, believing him to be a dangerous threat. So Pete must convince the townspeople that Elliot isn’t bad, all the while learning to find his place in human society again.

Bryce Dallas Howard and Oakes Fegley

Maybe it’s because “Pete’s Dragon” is set in the eighties, in a time before cell phones and the internet, that it has such an air of nostalgia and wonder about it. In fact, the film does have a Spielberg feel to it. The story takes the viewer back to a simpler time; there aren’t even any real villains in the movie, outside of the town’s ignorance. Having lived away from civilization for so long, the audience gets to watch Pete engage in everyday things we take for granted with a sense of wonder that you’d think would be diminished after being BFFs with a dragon for six years. And Pete has a difficult time adjusting; he wants to go back to his life with Elliot in the forest, but he is also enraptured by the people he’s met, from his new friend in Natalie to the motherly figure he’s found in Grace. Fegley conveys that uncertainty well, and the rest of the cast also does a fine job.

The special effects, particularly when it comes to animating Elliot, are well done too. The film takes a slightly ridiculous, action-heavy turn in the climax, but it doesn’t detract much from the overall story. Nor do those details that don’t make any sense when you think about them too hard, like how Pete was obviously living so close to people for six years and never came in contact with anyone sooner. “Pete’s Dragon” is truly a delight, and is surprisingly one of the best family movies of the year. The original movie wasn’t a huge hit with audiences. Let’s hope this one is.

Runtime: 103 minutes. Rated PG.

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