PLOT A park ranger discovers a boy who has survived in the woods with help from a dragon.
CAST Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley
RATED PG (some scary moments)
BOTTOM LINE Disney’s 1977 musical is reworked into a heart-wrenching drama.
Walt Disney Pictures has launched a project that could be called Operation Pinocchio, in which the studio’s classic animated films are transformed into live-action features. Recent versions of “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book” both starred human lead actors, and although both movies still relied on animation, it was of the three-dimensional, photo-realistic variety.
These new Disney movies are darker and more serious than the originals, and that goes double for “Pete’s Dragon,” a complete overhaul of the 1977 film. Gone is the tubby, fun-loving dragon who was inked-and-painted into scenes with Mickey Rooney and Shelley Winters. Gone, too, are the musical numbers. This new “Pete’s Dragon,” directed in a grand, majestic style by David Lowery (the 2013 neo-Western “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”), is something closer to a saga, or even a ballad. A sense of fun is notably missing, but the movie works well — maybe too well — as an emotionally wrenching story about a child who must put childhood behind him.
That would be little Pete (Oakes Fegley), whose parents, in the Disney tradition, are removed instantly from the story. Lost in the woods, Pete is taken under the massive wing of Elliot, a furry green dragon who is already a local myth. Robert Redford, in a small but appealing role, plays Meacham, a woodsman who once saw the creature. When Meacham’s forest-ranger daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), discovers a wild-haired but perfectly healthy Pete living in the woods, his story about a friendly dragon seems a shivery coincidence. Oona Laurence plays Grace’s daughter, who takes a shine to the feral boy.
There are problems with “Pete’s Dragon.” Elliot is an impressive CGI creation, but he lacks a distinctive personality. What’s more, he’s been saddled with new meaning: In addition to symbolizing carefree youth, he is now a spirit-guardian of the forest. An unscrupulous logger, Gavin (Karl Urban), serves as the film’s rather pat villain.
If “Pete’s Dragon” is both slightly hokey and overly somber, why is it guaranteed to reduce you to a puddle of tears? The answer lies in Lowery’s eye for natural beauty (the film was shot in New Zealand) and an almost Spielbergian gift for heart-tugging moments. Listen for Americana artists Will Oldham, The Wilderness and Lindsay Stirling on the soundtrack.