Anyone who grew up in the ’70s probably remembers “Pete’s Dragon,” the story of a live-action orphan boy and his animated pet dragon. It wasn’t one of Disney’s better efforts, but since everything is game for a reboot these days, the studio has dragged it out of the VHS bin and into the digital age.
The results are decidedly mixed. The goofy, cartoonish elements are gone, as are the musical numbers. But no one can quite settle on what should replace them.
The new version starts with a disturbing sequence of young Pete (Levi Alexander) surviving a car crash that kills his loving parents. As the bewildered, crying preschooler wanders through the forest, he encounters a mysterious creature.
Luckily for him, that creature is a friendly, furry(!) green dragon, who looks after Pete for the next six years. The dragon, named Elliott by his human pal, doesn’t speak, but he’s very expressive. Basically a giant puppy with wings, Elliott is the ideal fantastical playmate for Pete (now played by the wonderfully named Oakes Fegley). If you don’t think too much about the logistics, it’s a charming relationship, albeit one awfully close to the plot of Disney’s “The Jungle Book” (among other things).
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The pair’s Pacific Northwest home is being threatened by a logging operation, led by nice-guy Jack (Wes Bentley) and his hot-headed brother Gavin (Karl Urban). When Jack’s daughter discovers Pete watching the work site, he’s taken to the nearby town, where Jack and his girlfriend, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), give him a human family again.
Eventually, someone sees Elliott, and Gavin decides to hunt the “dangerous” monster. At this point, director David Lowery (“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints”) goes full “E.T.,” as Pete enlists his new friends to help protect his cuddly companion. The narrative turn holds no surprises, aside from making Gavin seem very unstable — he’s reasonably likable, except for the 25 minutes or so when he’s required to be a mustache-twirling villain.
Before the last-act suspense kicks in, “Pete’s Dragon” plays like a folktale, with a gentle, lyrical tone and characters who seem to exist out of time (good luck figuring out when this is supposed to take place). The locals are aware of legends about a dragon in the woods, but only Grace’s dad (Robert Redford, always welcome) has seen it. He’s the eccentric village storyteller, serving as a bridge between Elliott and Pete’s primal landscape and the unbelieving “real” world.
Lowery and screenwriter Toby Halbrooks seem to know what they want to do with “Pete’s Dragon,” but it doesn’t always translate to the screen. The shifts — from heartbreaking drama to silly comedy to dreamlike fable to action adventure — are so abrupt, it feels like the filmmakers are fighting with the rigid dictates of the Disney brand. It’s a valiant effort, but the only thing more powerful than a fire-breathing dragon is the Magic Kingdom he belongs to.
Read more of Loey Lockerby’s reviews at suchacritic.com.
Rated PG. Time: 1:35.