In an era when most everything gets rebooted regularly, it’s almost shocking that there hasn’t been a “Pete’s Dragon” reimagining before now, since the 1977 original is a happy-go-lucky yet dated and trippily goofy musical.
Even though it sets aside the show tunes, Disney isn’t ruining any childhoods with its fresh new boy-meets-dragon team-up. Co-writer/director David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) embraces a throwback nature by setting the simple and sweet tale in the ’70s-era Pacific Northwest but utilizes the most modern technology in crafting his gigantic, whimsical green star.
Pete (Oakes Fegley) is a feral 10-year-old orphan who has been living with his furry dragon buddy Elliot for years since a car accident killed the boy’s parents. Elliot is Pete’s de facto dad, big brother and best friend all wrapped up in one, though the pair’s idyllic wild life is encroached on by loggers from a nearby lumber mill.
You can’t keep a creature the size of a redwood secret that long in a small town, and Millhaven’s resident old coot Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) tells kids of a dragon that lives among the trees — a folk legend that his daughter, forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), takes as pastoral tall tale rather than truth. She meets Pete in the forest one day and he says his pal is a huge dragon, leading to a sequence of events putting poor Elliot in danger of losing everything.
Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli beautifully captures Elliot’s lush wilderness home, and the CGI title beast is a fuzzy wonder with a winning and expressive face that’s worth the admission price. Elliot is unlike most every other movie dragon in that moviegoers will just want to pet him the whole time. They’ll also question if he’ll ever be able to fly right since he has to parkour off tree branches to help him take wing — a charming character quirk that gives Elliot some extra humanity.
Fegley is solid as Pete, a kid torn between the adopted family he has and a more human one that could be, and Howard oozes maternal warmth as the situation goes south for Pete and Elliot. Karl Urban is Grace’s lumbering brother-in-law Gavin, who has the odd role of being comic relief and the villain, and it’s a dichotomy that never quite fits the story. It should be said, though, everybody deserves as cool a grandpa as Redford.
Like its predecessor, “Pete’s Dragon” skews heavily kid-friendly, though there are some moments where Gavin and his buddies are hunting Elliot with tranquilizer guns that could bother youngsters instantly invested with a really cute dragon. (With the exception of Redford, the movie’s men don’t come off very empathetic or friendly.) Yet Lowery knows his audience — even in a harrowing accident sequence, he turns the camera away and implies carnage rather than showing it.
The movie knows what it is and embraces that rather than going for storytelling gymnastics or a greatly nuanced family adventure. All one needs to grasp is the hope and inherent magic of a kid and a dragon being BFFs, then let the feels flow from there.
Walt Disney Studios presents a film directed by David Lowery and written by Lowery and Toby Halbrooks. Running time: 95 minutes. Rated PG (for action, peril and brief language). Opens Friday at local theaters.