Pete’s Dragon: A refreshing family hit

​Dragons might be an unusual choice for a childhood best friend, but the love between a young boy and his fire-breathing friend make for a captivating, heartwarming tale in the Disney remake “Pete’s Dragon.”

Moviegoers needn’t worry about having seen the 1977 animated musical version of the film as nearly everything from the original version has been scrubbed over and re-written by Texas native writer/director David Lowery.

Pretty much all that remains is an orphaned boy named Pete (Oakes Fegley) is helped by a mysterious, yet friendly dragon he calls Elliot and the two live for many years out in the Pacific Northwest forest. Several years later when logging crews begin to tear down his wooded home, Pete is discovered and taken in by a forest ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard). Separated from his only friend, Elliot must track down Pete while avoiding workers who want to capture a dragon.

“Pete’s Dragon” marks the first major film role for Fegley, who delivers a heart-wrenching, soulful performance as Pete. Forced from the outset to display a wide array of emotions, Fegley handles each scene with proper care and is especially touching at the film’s outset when tragedy forces Pete to go it alone in the woods. It’s much too early to determine Fegley’s future given the fickle nature of child actors, but he should be a staple in similar roles for the next several years.

Howard continues to elevate her profile with a terrific effort in “Pete’s Dragon” following a breakout in last year’s franchise smash “Jurassic World” opposite Chris Pratt. As Grace, Howard is far from the best thing about “Pete’s Dragon,” but adequately fills a pretty formulaic role.

Oscar winner Robert Redford delivers one of his best performances in several years in a supporting role as Grace’s father and town storyteller who happens to be the only other person to have ever seen a dragon. It’s a touching, memorable effort from Redford, who has a natural charm with the young performers he works opposite and easy father-daughter chemistry with Howard.

Awards aren’t given to these sorts of supporting performances, but Redford takes the small, simple part and knocks it out of the park with grace.

“Star Trek” actor Karl Urban is enjoyably evil-adjacent as the film’s requisite villain, a logger who leads a team of nameless henchmen deep into the forest to capture Elliot in hopes of making money. It’s a decent change of pace for Urban coming off three sci-fi adventure films, though his work here is not as thoughtful as in previous films.

If you’re still looking for a reason to catch “Pete’s Dragon” in theaters, look no further than Elliot the dragon, a CGI marvel on par with the animals in Disney’s other 2016 hit remake “The Jungle Book.” Elliot looks much more menacing in three-dimensional computer graphics than the flat animation of the 1977 original, but what is really stunning about Elliot is how gracefully the animators are able to digitally melt Elliot in and out of the background like a chameleon. This next-level CGI work helps flesh out the performances of actors who are emoting against thin air and the film feels a lot more authentic as a result in spite of the film’s inauthentic premise.

Indie film director Lowery shows an adept, expert hand at the wheel of the smartly paced adventure, in much the same way as his 2013 romance drama “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” starring Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara. Like Colin Trevorrow with “Jurassic World”  before him, Lowery proves that talented independent directors can successfully make the jump to big-budget films quite nicely.

“Pete’s Dragon” is one of the year’s most refreshing surprise hits and definitely worth a trip to the theaters for movie lovers of all ages.

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