In a summer overstuffed with sloppy sequels and underwhelming tent poles, the promise of another remake may seem more like a threat. However, Disney has already pushed audiences to reconsider “remake stigma” with thoughtful live-action revamps of animated classics, from Tim Burton’s surreal spin on “Alice in Wonderland” and Angelina Jolie’s antiheroine twist on “Sleeping Beauty” with “Maleficent” to Kenneth Branagh’s stylish new take on “Cinderella” and Jon Favreau’s eye-popping romp “The Jungle Book.”
Now add to that the bubbly joy of “Pete’s Dragon,” a tender and sweet reimagining of Disney’s 1977 tale of a boy and his beastly best friend Elliot.
Director/co-writer David Lowery has chucked most of the original story while holding fast to core elements like a boy in need of a family, a mother figure who could be his salvation, a belligerent band of brutish baddies and — of course — a towering but lovable dragon who can fly and turn invisible. In this version, Pete (Oaks Fegley) is no runaway, but instead bares a striking similarity to Mowgli from “The Jungle Book.” When a grim tragedy leaves him orphaned in the wilderness of the Pacific Northwest, the boy is raised by an animal native, a dragon with thick green fur, a busted fang and a big heart.
For six years, Pete and Elliot thrive in the majestic woods on the edge of the humble town of Millhaven. Sporting a ratty loincloth and flowing unkempt locks, the wild child barrels through the forest barefoot and happily yowling, his bounding best friend at his side. They soar over the trees, cuddle in a cozy cave and live a life of isolation, but also bliss. Yet Pete is drawn to people, in particular a little girl named Natalie (Oona Laurence) who spots him when humans encroach on his territory in the form of a chipper park ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) and a family of lumberjacks (Karl Urban and Wes Bentley).
Discovered, Pete is brought into town, and yowls for Elliot, the only family he knows. But Pete soon bonds with the ranger, Natalie and her dad (Wes Bentley), while Elliot faces off against hunters (led by Urban) to find his way back to the boy. That split focus makes for a wonky ride. However, Lowery fills the movie with heartwarming scenes and playful set pieces, so “Pete’s Dragon” is never anything but an utter delight.
Chief among the film’s prizes is Elliot himself. A marvel of modern animation, he seems so real that you might feel compelled to reach out and give his fur a stroke. His speech isn’t human, just gentle grumbles, growls and harrumphs. But voice actor John Kassir, best known for the cackling Crypt Keeper of “Tales from the Crypt,” helps bring a unique charm to Elliot’s vocals. The dragon moves like a giant loping dog, chasing his tail and flopping his ears — traits that combine with the green grandeur of the beast to make Elliot warmly familiar, yet slyly fantastical.
The human cast is lovely and game, leaning into the movie’s determinedly jaunty and theatrical tone. Child leads Fegley and Laurence are authentic and precious, bouncing off each other as enthusiastically as they do the CG dragon. Playing Pete’s grown-up ally, Howard is radiant with smiles and maternal affection. Robert Redford brings an earthy wonder as a storytelling old-timer who has a history with the legendary Millhaven dragon. Yet it seems Urban is having the most fun, waggling his eyebrows and mugging with relish as the comical antagonist.
While a lot of recent family films strive for sophistication through dark themes, pop culture references or socio-political messages meant to appeal to adults, this lighthearted reboot rejects all of that. Its story is straightforward with easy-going themes about family, and a gentle suggestion about the importance of environmental preservation. To that end, Urban’s baddie has more bark than bite: When he and his buds go hunting, they’re packing tranquilizers darts, aiming to capture — not kill — this incredible game. Mostly, Urban’s role calls for pratfalls and hollering, but he makes the best of both, delivering a villain who’s far more entertaining than intimidating.
Painted in vivid colors, flush with love and alive with whimsy, “Pete’s Dragon” is a superbly sweet and earnestly enchanting delight. It’s not deep. It’s not dark. It’s devotedly for kids craving a summer escape. But its simplicity is elegant, its story adorable, so it’s not only kids who will revel in this ride.
“Pete’s Dragon” opens today nationwide.
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