Disney's remake of Pete's Dragon isn't nearly as whimsical as the original. It socks you right in the gut with sentimentality. Writer/director David Lowery takes the classic story of a boy and his dragon to an emotional place that resonates. The sense of loss, discovery, and friendship are on equal footing to the adventurous elements. The lack of humor and upbeat music does make it less charming than its predecessor, but the overall approach results in a rewarding movie.
Bryce Dallas Howard stars as Grace, a park ranger who stumbles upon a wild boy deep in the forest. Pete (Oakes Fegley) has long matted hair, is dirty, and in rags, but otherwise completely healthy. Where did he come from? How could he have survived in the woods alone? The mystery deepens as Pete tells Grace of Elliott, his pet dragon and protector. Grace's father (Robert Redford) had long told stories of his chance encounter with a magical creature in the woods. She had branded it as fiction, a tall tale meant to entertain children.
Grace is astounded when her boyfriend's (Wes Bentley) brother (Karl Urban), a callous logger indifferent to nature, encounters Elliot. He and his men decide to go on the hunt. While the town gathers arms to investigate, Elliott leaves the safety of the forest to find his beloved Pete.
The 1977 version of Pete's Dragon was a spirited blend of live action and 2D animation. Modern visual effects and CGI gives the updated Elliott an ultra-realistic look. This results in a sort of seed change with how the story is told. Lowery's Elliott does have magical powers, but is much more of a defined character. Elliott has his own back story that intertwines with Pete. They're more like family than just friends. This bond is the crux of the film and carries weight.
Lowery's visual approach is intriguing and effective. The story seemingly takes place in the same period as the original. The 'when' is never clearly stated. The setting is inferred by the cars, the characters dress, and the lack of technology (cell phones, computers). The town is rustic idealized. It could be the picture on the cover of a maple syrup jar. Coupled with the folksy guitar driven soundtrack, a cozy, family oriented mood is clearly established.
Pete's Dragon is tonally very different than expected. I was a little disappointed at first, but was won over as the story played out. It's a far more serious film than the happy-go-lucky 1977 version. Thankfully, it stands on its own with heart and meaning. The 3D isn't really worth it if you want to save a few bucks taking the entire family to this latest Disney live-action fantasy adventure.