Set in the Pacific Northwest, this heart-warming, folkloric fantasy begins with an automobile accident in which four year-old Pete (Levi Alexander) loses both of his parents. Scared and stranded in the deep woods, orphaned Pete is soon befriended by a gentle, 24 foot-long dragon with moss-green fur, whom he names Elliot, after the dog in his favorite children’s book. Read on…
Six years later, near-feral Pete (now played by Oakes Fegley) has become a strong, self-confident 10 year-old, scampering through the forest with winged Elliot, who can become invisible whenever he senses danger.
One day, Pete – who lacks that camouflaging skill – is spied by Grace Meacham (Bryce Dallas Howard), a kindly forest ranger whose grizzled, garrulous father (Robert Redford) tells tall tales about the “magical” creature he once encountered deep in the Millhaven woods.
“Where’d you come from?” she wonders.
Grace lives with her fiancé, Jack (Wes Bentley), who owns the local lumber mill with his hot-tempered, trigger-happy brother, Gavin (Karl Urban). Jack has an 11 year-old daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), who immediately bonds with Pete, becoming his co-conspirator when gun-toting lumberjacks manage to capture Elliot.
Sentimentally scripted by Toby Halbrooks and director David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”), it’s a stylized re-imagining, more than a remake, of a forgettable 1977 Disney musical, featuring the voices of Helen Reddy, Mickey Rooney, Shelley Winters, Red Buttons and Jim Dale.
Like “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” and “The Iron Giant,” this is an old-fashioned, poignantly predictable lonely boy-meets-mythical creature story, related with sensitivity, sincerity and magnificent scenery. New Zealand substitutes for America’s Pacific Northwest, as Elliot is the creation of Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital.
Over the past few years, Walt Disney Pictures has been gradually transforming some of its animated classics into live-action, CGI-augmented features, as in “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book” – with “Beauty and the Beast” next on the schedule.
On the Granger Movie Gauge of 1 to 10, “Pete’s Dragon” flies in with an enchantingly earnest 8 – perhaps the best live-action, family film of the summer.