In case you’re thinking the new Pete’s Dragon is another one of those Disney schmaltz-fests that only the most naïve kid could tolerate, snap out of it. Unlike the stupefyingly dreary 1977 musical version of the same name with Jim Dale and Helen Reddy, this one has a real filmmaker at the helm. His name is David Lowery, whose indie drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints (2013) had a bruising poetry that made a lasting impression. You won’t be bruised much by a tale of orphan boy and the dragon that befriends him. But as family fun goes, Pete’s Dragon fills the bill without sending adults into sugar shock.
When we first meet Pete, he’s a reading a picture book in the backseat of a car driven by his parents. Then a deer darts out of nowhere, the car veers off the road and the parents are dead. (What is it with the Disney habit of killing off moms and dads?) Alone in the forest in the Pacific Northwest with wolves on his tail, Pete is protected by a green dragon he calls Elliot. It takes years for the now-10-year-old feral kid (Oakes Fegley) to be discovered by a forest ranger named Grace (an appealing Bryce Dallas Howard), who can’t see this occasionally invisible dragon. At least, not yet. It’s Grace’s father, Mr. Meacham (a warm and nicely understated Robert Redford), who claims to have encountered the creature in his youth. He’s a believer. You will be too, mostly because Lowery and co-writer Toby Halbrooks ease into the story without getting sucked into the quicksand of cutesy. And when Elliot reveals himself in all his 21-foot, computer-generated, furball glory, he’s a fuzzy delight with floppy ears like a pup and a charming clumsiness that’s irresistible.
The movie flags when the grownups, such as Grace’s rigid fiancé (Wes Bentley) and his bad-guy brother (Karl Urban), drag in every cliché about the cynical outside world. When the movie soars — and it does where it counts — is in the scenes with Pete and Elliot. Kudos to the visual effects masters at Weta, Peter Jackson’s company, for making this dragon such a dazzler. Thanks to Lowery’s humanizing magic, Pete’s Dragon is that rare family film you really can take to heart.