The freshly rebooted Pete's Dragon may owe more to E.T.: The Extraterrestrial, along with a dash of The Jungle Book,than it does to the original Pete's Dragon. But if you like those childhood classics, this story of two vulnerable souls who help each other find their way works, too.
Dallas filmmaker David Lowery, who made a splash at the Sundance Film Festival with Ain't Them Bodies Saints, has co-authored a screenplay with Toby Halbrooks that moves the 1977 action from a sea village with a lighthouse to the current deep, mysterious, inviting forest where one can imagine a dragon hiding from view. This time Pete, instead of being on the run from a comically atrocious foster family, is the lone survivor of a car crash in the woods that killed his parents.
The scene doesn't show the bodies, and it's in keeping with the kill-off-the-parents formula that kicks off many animated Disney movies, from Bambi to Tarzan. Still, the literalness of a live-action depiction of death may prove a tough emotional start for younger kids.
Pete names the dragon Elliot (one wonders if that name didn't inspire the name of the boy and initials of the alien in the 1982 Steven Spielberg film, which incidentally, came out the year in which this film is set). Elliot saves Pete from wolves, and Pete saves Elliot from loneliness. They bond like Mowgli and Baloo of The Jungle Book -- until Pete (a vulnerable and endearing Oakes Fegley) discovers and is discovered by humans.
At that point, Pete finds himself drawn to Grace, a forest ranger (a maternal Bryce Dallas Howard); her father (a crusty Robert Redford, the only one other than Pete who believes in dragons); Grace's fiancé, Jack, and his young daughter (a supportive Wes Bentley and Oona Laurence); and the possibility of belonging to their family. Of course, that leaves the question of what will happen to Elliot.
There's one villain, Jack's brother, Gavin (Karl Urban), a greedy lumber guy who is too aggressive about cutting down trees and tries to parlay Elliot into a financial windfall. The story allows Gavin to redeem himself, as if to underscore the message that families are complicated and even great wounds, such as the one Pete endured at the start of his story, can heal.
PETE'S DRAGON (B+)
Directed by David Lowery. PG (for action, peril and brief language). 95 minutes. In wide release.