Experiencing “Pete’s Dragon” is like seeing something thought to be extinct, a creation every bit as magical and mythical as the flying, fire-breathing beast it’s named after. That would be the straight ahead, unapologetic family film.
As directed and co-written by David Lowery, “Pete’s Dragon” is unconcerned about its throwback nature, about being the kind of four-square movie its distributor, Disney, could have made decades ago, free of off-color humor and sophisticated wisecracks alike.
Made with integrity as well as sweetness, it’s never sappy and makes do with just the right amount of tension, hence its PG rating. A film about loneliness, friendship and the nature of family, it traffics in the kind of magic we don’t see often enough, the magic of innocence.
The original 1977 “Pete’s Dragon” was a combination of live action and animation because back in the day that was the only way you could tell its story of a boy who becomes best friends with a fantastic creature he calls Elliot.
One way “Pete’s Dragon” is completely modern and up to date is in its use of the latest in computer-generated imagery under the control of visual effects supervisor Eric Saindon of Weta Digital, who did the honors for “The Hobbit” films as well as “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Though Elliot is 24 feet tall and can fly and breathe fire with the best of them, this dragon is goofy and cuddly looking, more of a walking plush toy than something out of “Game of Thrones.”
The folks at Weta had to digitally create each of the nearly 15 million hairs on Elliot’s body, and the result is so photorealistic, especially in 3-D, it allows this dragon to be placed with total conviction into live-action situations.
As written by director Lowery and his screenwriting partner Toby Halbrooks, this “Dragon” is based on Malcolm Marmorstein’s screenplay for the 1977 film but takes very little from the original except the core idea of a boy/dragon relationship.
“Dragon” starts with cute 5-year-old Pete in the backseat of the family car, reading a picture book called “Elliot Gets Lost” about a lost dog as his vacationing parents motor through the Pacific Northwest.
No sooner does Pete’s mom call him “the bravest boy I’ve ever met” than circumstances conspire to put that notion to the test. An accident happens and suddenly Pete is alone in the woods, surrounded by unfriendly wolves, when heavy, earth-shaking footfalls cause the beasts to scatter.
Yes, it’s that enormous dragon, looking more like an overgrown puppy than anything else. And wouldn’t you know it, he and Pete, who names the beast Elliot after the character in the book, take an immediately shine to each other.
“Pete’s Dragon” cuts to six years later, and the cheerful hamlet of Millhaven, a bucolic locale (shot in Tapanui, New Zealand, not the Pacific Northwest) that’s set by design in what Lowery calls a “just yesterday” era where everything looks familiar but modern devices like cell phones and computers have yet to appear.
It’s the kind of place where grizzled oldster Mr. Meacham (a surprising Robert Redford) takes time out from his wood carving to entertain local kids with his stories of seeing a real-life dragon in the deepest part of the deep woods just outside of town.
Mr. Meacham’s grown daughter Grace (a spot-on Bryce Dallas Howard) thinks she knows better. A forest ranger who’s convinced she’s explored every inch of these woods, Grace pooh-poohs her dad’s tall tales, as what sane person wouldn’t.
Grace’s partner, Jack (Wes Bentley), owns a local lumber mill and happens to have a daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence, the brainy daughter in “Southpaw”) who is just about Pete’s age.
And what has happened to Pete after all these years? Now long-haired and scruffy (and very effectively played by Oakes Fegley), Pete and his dragon are still great pals, playing hide-and-seek games enlivened by Elliot’s ability to become invisible at will.
The film’s two worlds collide when Jack’s money-hungry jerk of a brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), the closest thing to a villain this film has, decides to cut down trees in an off-limits part of the forest and makes enough noise to attract Pete’s attention.
That leads to Pete connecting with Grace and Jack, who naturally want to take the young lad into town and civilize him. But what will this mean for Elliot, left alone in the forest? After all, as Pete touchingly notes, “he gets scared when I’m gone.”
This ability to create a moving relationship between a boy and his dragon is perhaps the most impressive accomplishment of director Lowery, who brought a similar earnestness to his otherwise radically different Sundance feature, “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints.”
Here Lowery has made a film that, though intended for the smallest among us, will transport older viewers back to a time when they themselves were young enough to believe. Is there a market for a film like this in today’s world? If dragons are real, there just might be.
MPAA rating: PG for action, peril and brief language.
Running time: 1 hour, 42 minutes.
Playing: In general release.
On Twitter: @KennethTuran