ANYONE LOOKING to compare this Pete’s Dragon with the 1977 original would do well not to—in part because the 1977 version is garbage, and in part because this remake is an entirely different creature. Set in the shadowed forests of the Pacific Northwest, Pete’s Dragon: 2016 Edition finds feral child Pete (Oakes Fegley) hanging out in the woods with his pal Elliot, a giant green dog who can fly. At its best points, that’s all the movie is: a dirt-smeared kid and his excellent dragon running around with a wild earnestness that recalls Spike Jonze’s underrated take on Where the Wild Things Are. Since this is a 2016 Disney movie, though, there has to be more, and while some of that extra stuff is great (Robert Redford, fully in “cuddly grandpa” mode, plays an old weirdo who swears he once saw a dragon in the woods), some of it isn’t (villainous logger Karl Urban tries to catch Elliot, even as Bryce Dallas Howard tries to mother Pete).
But shooting through an earnest, ’70s-esque gauze, director David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) keeps things balanced and surprisingly emotional. Even if the music of Pete’s Dragon is always about 30 seconds away from schmaltz, and even if one ill-advised action sequence feels cut-and-pasted from a lesser movie, this Pete’s Dragon stays on the right side of sappy and exciting. More importantly, Lowery is willing to push his characters, including Elliot, into actual drama—into situations that can be sad and intense as well as as funny and light. Thank god, this thing feels like a kids’ movie that has actual stakes. Remember those?