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The soaring soul of 'Pete's Dragon'

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Disney remake retains spirit of beloved original

We all have movies from our childhoods that hold a particularly special place in our hearts; movies that we might not have seen for years, yet still carry fond memories of to this day.

The 1977 Disney film 'Pete's Dragon' was one of those movies for me.

Whether it was the basic sweetness of the story or the delight in seeing an animated dragon frolicking amongst the live-action players or even just the fact that it was set in Maine, I loved that movie.

As you might guess, that led me to approach the remake with a fair amount of caution. Happily, my concern was unfounded 'Pete's Dragon' is a visually enchanting and emotionally engaging family film that managed to update the proceedings without losing any of the underlying spirit of the original.

Set in the mid-1980s, 'Pete's Dragon' is the story of a little boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley, 'Prism') who was left orphaned and lost deep in the woods by a car crash. He is saved by, wella dragon, one that he names Eliot after the canine star of Pete's favorite book.

Six years pass. In the nearby town of Millhaven, an aged woodworker named Mr. Meachem (Robert Redford, 'A Walk in the Woods') regales local children with tall tales of his long-ago encounter with a dragon tales that his forest ranger daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard, 'Jurassic World') dismisses out of hand. Grace's fianc Jack (Wes Bentley, 'We Are Your Friends') runs the local lumber mill with his brother Gavin (Karl Urban, 'Star Trek Beyond').

One day, out in the woods, Grace, Jack and the rest including Jack's young daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence, 'Bad Moms') inadvertently discover Pete and wind up bringing him back to town. Unfortunately, this also leads to Eliot being exposed to Gavin and his crew, leaving them determined to capture what they believe to be a fearsome beast.

As Grace and her family try to figure out what to do with this mysterious little boy, Eliot makes his way out of the woods in search of his friend. But despite their best intentions, Pete and his new friends inadvertently put Eliot into real danger danger that he's going to need a lot of help to escape.

This is precisely the sort of live-action fare at which Disney often excels a family-friendly film with some stunning visual effects, a heartwarming story and plenty of tender emotions; they even manage to treat their nigh-ubiquitous 'dead parents' trope with more subtlety than usual. The lovely simplicity of the original remains intact here; the form may have changed, but the message remains the same.

Director David Lowery who also co-wrote the screenplay (with Toby Halbrooks) adapted from Malcolm Marmorstein's 1977 script has a clear respect for the source material. Rather than overwhelming the narrative with unnecessary razzle-dazzle (although there's plenty of visual excitement), he chooses to embrace the basic messages of love and friendship that are the fundamental underpinnings of the story. It is beautiful to look at, sure, but it is also tender and uplifting make no mistake, it's going to get you right in the feels, as they say.

Really, the film's biggest feat is infusing the CGI-generated Eliot with what feels like genuine life; there's puppy-dog affection and hurt feelings and protective anger there. It's remarkable for long stretches, I simply forgot that Eliot wasn't real. That sort of empathetic reaction just doesn't happen; it's quite remarkable.

Of course, the work of young Oakes Fegley goes a long way toward selling Eliot's reality. The kid captures the 'boy and his dog' vibe that encapsulates the wonderful purity of the relationship; he's good throughout, but it's his work against the CGI dragon that shines brightest. Howard tends to be best when she's allowed to be earnest; she's that and then some here. Bentley and Urban are effective as the quarreling, yet still loving brothers, while Laurence manages to come off as precocious without being irritating. And Redford is at his grizzled late-career best here, filling his scenes with an easy paternal charm.

This is a genuinely touching film. The notion of friendship and family being able to overcome obstacles is a good one especially for kids. Was I wiping my eyes? Yep more than once. And I'm not even a little embarrassed.

'Pete's Dragon' is a wonderful blend of adventure and emotion the perfect formula for exceptional family-friendly fare that kids of all ages will adore. Yes, I loved the original, but this movie showed me that there's room in my heart for more than one boy-befriending dragon.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Tuesday, 31 January 2017 19:39

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