‘Pete’s Dragon’ takes flight with magic and wonder

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Pete and Elliot meet for the first time in "Pete's Dragon."

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Walt Disney Pictures

When studios pump out remakes, it’s generally because they want cash. Sometimes, though, there is the rare remake that is necessary, one that improves upon the original. The first “Pete’s Dragon,” a live-action film with an animated cartoon dragon, was one of Disney’s lesser productions when it came out in 1977. Its plodding nature makes it a strange choice for Disney’s pantheon of remakes, but the 2016 update far surpasses its source material.

Texas-based director David Lowery gives “Pete’s Dragon” an enthralling storybook quality without getting lost in whimsy as Spielberg did with this summer’s “The BFG.” He made a gentle, folksy movie that is foremost for children and will undoubtedly captivate the imagination of older audiences as well.

Lowery wastes no time getting to the fateful meeting between Pete (Oakes Fegley), who is lost in the Oregon woods after a car crash kills his parents, and the furry green dragon, Elliot. The scene takes place as the sun literally and metaphorically sets on Pete’s old life. But Lowery soon moves past the tragedy and sets the stage for the excitement and wonder to come.

Elliot is a regal beast, majestic and noble. He can turn invisible among the trees and would rather hide than fight, and he has more in common with an oversized dog than dragons of other stories. His gleaming, expressive eyes invite Pete, and the audience, to love him dearly. When he smiles and takes to the sky, this animated creature transcends his cartoon origins and feels real.

As Pete, Fegley capably stands alongside the gigantic dragon. His simultaneous fierceness and tenderness make him a likable lead, and there is rarely a false note in his performance.

As Pete and Elliot undertake adventures in the forest, they solidify their friendship. Awe permeates their excursions, from their breathtaking sunset flights to their mischievous games of hide-and-seek. Lowery indulges in the sheer joy of the characters’ wild fun, throwing us headlong into a world that will make even the hardest of hearts yearn for their childhood years. But conflict sets in when Pete is discovered by Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a kind park ranger who wants to find out how he has survived in the forest on his own.

Grace offers Pete a place among his own kind in the town of Millhaven, but Pete soon wants to return to Elliot. The friendship between boy and dragon is threatened when headstrong lumberjack Gavin (Karl Urban) sets out to capture Elliot. Pete must rely on Grace, her father Mr. Meacham (Robert Redford) and Gavin’s niece, Natalie (Oona Laurence), to save Elliot.

“Pete’s Dragon” has a lot in common with other stories about kids and their incredible inhuman friends — it possesses the charm of “E.T.,” the social-mindedness of “The Iron Giant” and the familial turmoil of “Free Willy.” At its core, like all three of these movies, “Pete’s Dragon” is about growing up without forgetting who you are. The film mines these themes for raw emotion as Elliot is persecuted and Pete finds himself helpless to stop the injustice. However dark its low points might be, they make the high-flying climax the rousing success it is.

The “Pete’s Dragon” remake will win over critics of the original and enrapture new generations to come. Like Elliot, the movie soars high, and it lifts all who see it, too.

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  • “Pete’s Dragon”
  • Running Time: 90 minutes
  • Rating: PG
  • Score: 4.5/5 stars