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The original Pete's Dragon is a Disney film very much of its era. Beyond just its live-action/2D animation hybrid style and musicality, it's also one of those movies that you look back on and realize just how crazy twisted it is (from slave-driving foster parents to an organ-harvesting medicine showman, it really has it all). As such, it wouldn't have really worked for writer/director David Lowery to make a direct copy when crafting his own take on the story, but this just works for the new film's benefit. As while Lowery's version of Pete's Dragon isn't entirely without its share of darkness, it retains the deeply rooted themes of family, love and connection, and has a vivacious sense of adventure and incredible heart.
Set in the late 1970s/early 1989s, though feeling entirely timeless, the film opens with a tremendous tragedy, as a boy named Pete (Levi Alexander) finds himself orphaned and stranded in the forest after a car accident kills both of his parents. With predators lurking in the trees all around him, the young protagonist needs a miracle to survive -- and gets one in the form of Elliott: a giant, furry dragon that can both turn invisible and take to the skies at will.
Six years later, Pete (now played by Oakes Fegley) grows up and makes a home for himself and Elliott in the woods -- spending his days aimlessly sprinting through the gorgeously-shot flora, splashing through rivers, and freely leaping off of cliffs, always knowing that his majestic buddy will be there to catch him. Together they live in isolation, but that comes to an end when Pete spots Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), a ranger doing her rounds, and he discovers the activities of a lumber mill cutting down a section of the forest under the guise of brothers Gavin (Karl Urban) and Jack (Wes Bentley) -- who is also Grace's fiancé.
Pete is ultimately discovered by Jack's daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), and Grace brings the young boy into the local town of Mill Haven -- against his wishes. An escape attempt and his repeated requests to be reunited with Elliott lead to questions about who this forest companion might be, and Pete tells them about his fuzzy friend. Along with Grace's father, Meacham (Robert Redford), who tells enchanting stories to the local kids about his own encounter with a dragon, Pete, Grace and Natalie venture back into the woods for a fantastical introduction. Unfortunately, they're not the only ones to discover Elliott's existence, and Pete must protect his dragon buddy from real danger.
Clearly built as a family film meant to be watched by movie-goers all ages, Pete's Dragon isn't packed with all kinds of big dramatic twists and reveals. Instead, David Lowery lets the simple narrative play out logically and directly at its own natural pace, and really lets the characters and relationships compel the audience's investment. In the spirt of films like The Black Stallion and even the original Pete's Dragon, the film finds real magic in the relationship between its young lead and his fantastical CGI best friend -- but that same kind of emotion persists amongst all of the human relationships as well. As Grace, Bryce Dallas Howard (who delivers an all-around wonderful turn) has a truly heartwarming and never cloying bond with Oakes Fegley's Pete, which only grows stronger as the characters get closer. Excellent chemistry is persistent between every member of the ensemble, and it's their emotional connection together that makes you care how everything plays out by the end of the adventure.
Pete's Dragon marks David Lowery's first step into the studio movie world, having wowed Sundance Film Festival audiences in 2013 with his last feature, Ain't Them Bodies Saints - but the move does nothing to stifle his breathtaking visual style. Every time the movie journeys into the forest, it simply becomes spellbinding, as the director makes you feel enveloped in the majesty of nature and compels you to want to join Pete and Elliott on a sprint-and-fly ride through the trees. The work also serves as a reminder of just how incredibly far visual effects have come, as Weta Digital's work bringing Elliott to life is immaculate, and Lowery elegantly folds him into the grounded and hazy atmosphere of his aesthetic (to say nothing of the fact that you want to hug the giant cat-like dragon until one or both of you passes out). Lowery's last film made him a director to look out for, and Pete's Dragon secures his place as one of the industry's most talented new filmmakers.
The only good remakes are those that have a legitimate reason to exist and something to add to the story that's already been told, and Pete's Dragon fits that in every way. Essentially ignoring every element of the 1977 original beyond the relationship between the two titular characters, David Lowery has crafted a beautiful, earnest family film with wonderful emotion and pathos that should see it continually watched for years.