There is no singing, no dancing, no lighthouse, and definitely no bill of sale to be found in the otherwise rather gentle and lovely "Pete's Dragon," a modern reimagining of 1977's heartwarming live-action Disney musical. Using the original film's general premise as a jumping-off point but otherwise going in their own direction, writer-director David Lowery (2013's "Ain't Them Bodies Saints
") and co-writer Toby Halbrooks expand upon the past of young orphaned hero Pete while placing him in a different locale (the rugged Pacific Northwest in lieu of the New England coast) and giving him a fresh set of challenges to overcome. The memorable, hum-worthy songs are missed, but this touching family adventure is involving and perceptive enough to fly high in spite of its less melodic throughline.
Six years ago, 10-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegley) was left stranded by himself in the wilderness after a car accident claimed the lives of both his parents. Befriended by a big, green, furry dragon who looks unmistakably like the one in his picture book "Elliot Gets Lost," he learns to otherwise survive on his own. When Pete's path crosses with Millhaven forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), her fiancé Jack (Wes Bentley), and his 11-year-old daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence), he is faced with a tough decision: to trust these kind strangers and rejoin human civilization, or return to the forest to be with a mythical creature Grace will soon discover is very much real. He knows, deep down, which choice is best.
"Pete's Dragon" doesn't have quite the toe-tapping soul and exuberance of its predecessor, but this loose contemporary remake stands on its own and deepens Pete as a character. In the earlier picture, little was learned about him other than that he was an orphan; there was no mention of a family or a history prior to the movie's start. Here, Pete's circumstances and his friendship with Elliot are born out of tragedy and a fortunate chance encounter. No longer a hand-drawn animated fantasy beast come to life, the kind-hearted Elliot exists as a local legend who is anything but fiction; Grace's father, Meacham (Robert Redford), has told stories about coming into contact with the so-called "Millhaven Dragon" ever since she was a child, and the skeptic in her has never believed them. In meeting Pete and growing to care about him, Grace finds herself opening her mind to the possibility that he and her dad have been telling the truth.
Oakes Fegley (2014's "This Is Where I Leave You
") is plucky yet unprecocious as Pete, his character's integration into a world still very much alien to him reminding of the remarkable work of Jacob Tremblay in 2015's "Room
." Believable in his vulnerability while possessing the emotional nuance of an experienced actor three times his age, Fegley effectively embodies everything Pete should be. Bryce Dallas Howard (2015's "Jurassic World
") exhibits warmth, patience and tenacity as Grace, even if she disappointingly doesn't get the chance to perform Helen Reddy's Oscar-nominated song "Candle on the Water." Her growing bond with Pete is every bit the story's centerpiece as Pete's relationship with Elliot, and Fegley and Howard find magic in their pairing. Robert Redford (2013's "All Is Lost
") gives the supporting role of Grace's widowed father Meacham a wizened, down-to-earth gravity, his thoughtful bookend narration helping to smooth over the feeling he has been somewhat underused by the script. Oona Laurence (2016's "Bad Moms
") is wonderful as Natalie, who makes the initial discovery of Pete and quickly becomes protective of him like the brother she never had.
Of the central ensemble, Wes Bentley (2016's "Knight of Cups
") and Karl Urban (2016's "Star Trek Beyond
") are the least actualized as lumber company owners and brothers Jack and Gavin. Bentley's chemistry with Howard is a non-starter despite Jack and Grace's intimate involvement, while Urban is forced into the part of a greedy bad guy who sees the dragon as a guaranteed dollar sign. For a time, this subplot involving Urban threatens to steal away the film's endearing touch. It does, however, ramp up the stakes enough for Pete's ultimate decision during the finale to make a more meaningful, poignant imprint.
"Pete's Dragon" is a quality live-action feature conjuring the kind of brazzle-dazzle spell for which Disney is known and cherished. The story is sensitive and well-told, the seamless visual effects allow the viewer to believe the flying, fire-breathing Elliot is real, and the characters are, for the most part, affectionately observed. A soundtrack of folk-rock cuts featuring The Lumineers and St. Vincent provide nice accompaniment, giving the proceedings an earnest, down-home quality. Director David Lowery does not shrink away from shades of darkness and tinges of threat in his story, and he is smart to face them; they only make the picture's warm-hearted beauty and inherent goodness more sweetly earned. Musical numbers or not, "Pete's Dragon" is pretty enchanting.