FRIENDLY DRAGON, lovely film

102 min. | PG

Disney’s 1977 Pete’s Dragon was mostly live-action, except for the key element of the cartoonish, mischievous giant beast itself. A CGI dragon do-over must’ve been irresistible.

This new dragon, Elliot, is a delight and a marvel. A sweet-faced creature of green fur and exuberant spirit, he may be monstrously enormous, but he’s hardly a monster. He’s more like a big dog, chasing his own tail in one bit (awww). He loves the orphaned boy, Pete (Oakes Fegley), who lives like Mowgli in the Pacific Northwest forests.

This new Pete’s Dragon has more in common with Disney’s recent Jungle Book remake than with the 1977 original. This one is set in the 1980s and it’s no longer a musical, and even has more in common with E.T., with its tale of a lonely boy protecting his fantastical friend from adults who would harm him.

Director and cowriter David Lowery’s previous features are on the arthouse end of the spectrum. Maybe going in the other direction—family entertainment—led to the film’s mildness, at times drifting into dullness. There’s little frenetic, colorful action that typifies kid movies today. Less than a rollicking adventure, it’s like a pleasant walk in the redwood forest where Pete and Elliot live.

There’s surprisingly little drama, too. When park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) discovers Pete living in the woods—he’s been alone there with Elliot for six years after an outing ended in a car wreck that killed his parents—it’s easier than we’d expect for Pete to return to civilization. He’s dirty and disheveled, but hardly feral. He slides easily back into the world with Grace, her logging boyfriend Jack, and Jack’s daughter, Natalie. Pete’s worried about Elliot, particularly when Jack’s friend, Gavin, wants to go dragon hunting.

The movie isn’t enough of anything—not scary or funny enough. But its sereneness and warm heart is infectious. It tells a familiar story, but avoids clichés that might’ve rendered it tiresome.

Gavin turns out not to be as villainous as he could’ve been. I appreciate Grace’s portrayal. Her father (Robert Redford) has been scaring local kids for years with his story of a dragon encounter in the woods, and Grace has been scoffing at that for years, because she knows the forest and has seen no evidence of dragons. It would’ve been easy to portray her as the no-imagination grump in a lazy parable about keeping an open mind. But the movie doesn’t.

I was left in happy tears at the end of the film. Pete’s Dragon’s magic is understated, soft, clean and lovely.