Almost 40 years ago (1977), Walt Disney Studios released “Pete’s Dragon,” a live action/ animation combo. As they did earlier this year with “The Jungle Book,” the studio decided to remake “Pete’s Dragon.” In fact, the two new movies share some similarities. Like Mowgli in “The Jungle Book,” Pete spends part of his formative years in the wild. His first meeting with the dragon he names Elliot (the dragon’s name loses a “t” in this new version) is much like the one in which Bagheera finds Mowgli, as are the sequences of both boys running and playing in the wild.
The idyllic Pacific Northwest forest existence Pete (young Oakes Fegley, very natural in the role) and Elliot share eventually is interrupted by “civilization.” Pete’s first glimpses of forest ranger Grace (a caring and thoughtful Bryce Dallas Howard) remind him of his late mom. As a ranger, Grace feels it’s her mission to protect the forest she loves. She inherited this affection for nature from her father, Mr. Meacham (played wise and patient by Robert Redford), but she’s never believed his stories about a dragon in the forest.
Resourceful and curious Natalie (Oona Laurence), the daughter of Grace’s fiancé, is Pete’s second re-introduction to humans. The two kids immediately hit it off, playing chase in the forest. When Natalie injures herself, the adults arrive. Natalie’s uncle Gavin (Karl Urban) not only is rough with Pete but also suspects there’s something else living in the forest. Like Gaston of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast,” overly aggressive Gavin decides to “hunt down the beast,” which in this case is Elliot the dragon. Unfortunate confrontations between man and nature result, with Pete trying to straddle both worlds. Composer Daniel Hart’s score enhances the action, with the music soaring as Elliot and Pete fly through the sky and adding to the suspense of peril sequences.
As in the original film, Elliot is created via animation, this time CG from WETA. Director and co-writer David Lowery guided the animators in the creation of Elliot. He requested his 24-foot dragon honor the animated original but this time “I wanted him to be furry…very furry.” The result is an appealing, energetic and caring character who fiercely protects those he loves, depending on Pete just as the boy relies on him.
Occasionally Lowery and Toby Halbrooks’ script falls short. In particular, Meacham’s attitude toward the dragon seems inconsistent. At the beginning of the film, he tells local children he stabbed Elliot with his pocketknife. But, for the rest of the movie he’s very protective of the creature. His later explanation to Grace about his true encounter with Elliot doesn’t correct the inconsistency. And, the final solution for Elliot’s future seems simplistic. Luckily, none of that takes away from the enjoyment of this family adventure film.