A boy scampers through the woods, happy in his natural surroundings. He runs, jumps, climbs and scurries, far away from the human world, with a very unusual creature for a companion. Such tales keep popping up in cinemas this year, particularly as far as modern-day, CGI-enhanced remakes of decades-old family fare are concerned. If The Jungle Book wowed you with not only its impressive visuals, but also its tender heart, then prepare for Pete's Dragon to do the same.
Just don't expect a scary presence in this gentle effort – regardless of what the title seems to promise. Instead, the eponymous critter, named Elliott by the orphaned Pete (Oakes Fegley), is more like friendly, flying family. For five years after a car accident that leaves the boy stranded in the forest, the pair are inseparable. But when loggers venture into their turf, Pete is spotted by local girl Natalie (Oona Laurence), and taken in by park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard). Neither Pete nor Elliott cope well with their separation, especially when the townsfolk, led by sawmill owner Gavin (Karl Urban), start trying to track the dragon down.
Be it a dragon, a giant robot or an extraterrestrial hoping to phone home, there's a reason that movies about kids connecting with unlikely buddies keep capturing hearts and minds. As demonstrated here by bookend narration offered by Grace's father (Robert Redford), the childlike need to find a kindred spirit doesn't fade with age. With that idea firmly in writer-director David Lowery's mind, his take on Pete's Dragon has more in common, tone-wise, with E.T. and The Iron Giant than it does the 1977 musical film it's based on.
His movie is big on sentiment, belief and awe — though it's purposefully small and straightforward in its story. With his regular producer turned co-scribe Toby Halbrooks, the filmmaker best known for the lyrical western Ain't Them Bodies Saints once again opts to evoke emotion and wonder above all else. Accordingly, as much as the earnest feature explores yearning desires, it's also simply about letting audiences experience a world in which a boy can pal around with a dragon that looks like a giant, green, winged puppy. That's an inherently magical concept, made all the more so by Elliott's ability to turn invisible.
So it is that for 103 patient, precisely paced minutes, the film invites viewers to not only dare to see the dragon, but to believe that he's actually real. The charming Fegley certainly goes along for the ride, as do his adult costars. But the most crucial figure is the digitally rendered Elliott, who Lowery, his team of Weta animators, and cinematographer Bojan Bazelli bring to the screen with a glow that matches the movie's warm heart. Just be warned: if you're prone to being moved by such sweet stories, you'd best bring a whole heap of tissues.