‘Pete’s Dragon’ breathes fire into imagination

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It’s not easy to make a remake of a 40-year old Disney movie, even if you’re Disney. With updated technology, director and co-writer David Lowery uses simple old-school storytelling to deliver a beautiful heartfelt story with child-like imagination. These days, his formula won’t win the box-office, but kudos for another family-friendly feature.

This is the story of Pete (Oakes Fegley), a feral child and the dragon that helps raise him deep in the forest. Fegley is perfectly cast as the rambunctious youngster who is cute as a chipmunk. Instead of cold scales, Elliot, the dragon is warm and cuddly with the fur of a Muppet. His head and facial features are more like a green Scooby Doo. Ruh roh!

After the typical Disney introduction of childhood abandonment, Elliot finds Pete. For six years, the BFFs romp and frolic through the scenic woods. CGI allows the audience to fly with them over dramatic river gorges and lush flora and fauna (filmed in New Zealand). They share a secret cave under an colossal tree, living in the midst of nature.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Ranger Grace with wholesome charm. Robert Redford is her father, Meacham. He plays the role as a kind and gentle senior citizen who spins tall tales with neighborhood children; mostly about a mythical creature called the Milhaven Dragon. Grace frowns on dear old dad filling their heads with such nonsense.

Exploring the wonder of nature, the film does not miss the opportunity for a message to the children about deforestation and greed. Karl Urban (“Star Trek”) deliberately over-acts the role as an aggressive lumberjack supervisor. We’re just grateful he and his fellow hunters didn’t carry pitchforks and bellow, “Kill the Beast!”

As they discover Pete and bring him back to civilization, there are many affecting scenes. Pete’s story is so far-fetched, people have trouble believing there could be such a dragon friend. Grace tells her father, “I know these woods like the back of my hand and have never seen a dragon.” Meacham replies, “You never saw the kid either.”

As so many of today’s movies strive to see how much action and havoc they can cram into each scene, Lowery produces his film with a tender touch and at a more measured pace. Although the dragon rendering is inspired, they refreshingly exploit the relationships between Elliot and Pete, Pete and Grace and Grace and Meacham, as much with empathy, body language and nuance, as with dialog.

Lowery described his version of the film as a “re-invention,” rather than a remake. In the 1977 original, Pete was a runaway orphan from an abusive foster family. It was a musical starring Helen Reddy as Nora and Mickey Rooney as her father Lampie the lighthouse keeper. Lowery wanted to reinvent “the core story of a venerable Disney family film” to distinguish it from the original as much as possible.

For a simple film, this is one of the best remakes we’ve seen in awhile. The strong cast is so likeable and film so old-fashioned that the CGI effects are just an added bonus. Elliot mostly grunts, but seems to understand everything he’s told. His broken tooth adds an element of vulnerability, so he needs Pete as much as Pete needs him.

“Pete’s Dragon” is 102 minutes and rated PG for action, peril and brief language. If you don’t believe a fire breathing dragon has to generate mayhem and don’t mind a feel-good story with some sappy sentimentality, this is one of the most delightful movie experiences of the year. It is the wholesome family film we came to expect from Disney.

These days, the term “understated” carries a negative connotation. Surprisingly, this revision is a welcome change of pace. The original was an entertaining kid flick, while this one may entertain selected family members of all ages. It doesn’t break any new ground, but that’s the point. It breathes fire into a lightweight tale of childhood imagination. Our humble advice: If you can’t take the heat, stay away from the dragon.

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Ron & Leigh Martel