[Screen It]


(2016) (Oakes Fegley, Bryce Dallas Howard) (PG)

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Fantasy/Adventure: A boy and his pet dragon who live together in the woods must contend with being discovered by others.
Six years after a single-vehicle accident claimed the lives of his parents, Pete (OAKES FEGLEY) is a young boy who lives in the woods of America's Northwest. He's survived with the help of Elliott, a friendly dragon that's also survived there by his literal ability to turn invisible or otherwise blend into his surroundings. The two have a happy coexistence, with Elliott coming off as part goofy dog-like creature, and part protector of the boy.

Pete's not the only one who's ever seen Elliott, however, as an older man, Mr. Meacham (ROBERT REDFORD), regales young kids with tall tales about his encounter with the dragon many years ago. Of course, no one believes him, including his adult daughter, Grace (BRYCE DALLAS HOWARD), who's a forest ranger in those woods. Due to her love of those environs, she's somewhat at odds with her boyfriend, Jack (WES BENTLEY), who runs a local lumber mill while being a single parent to his 10-year-old daughter, Natalie (OONA LAURENCE).

That girl eventually spots Pete who's then "rescued" from the woods and ends up temporarily living with her, her dad and Grace. All of which results in Elliott looking for the boy and thus being spotted by Jack's brother and employee, Gavin (KARL URBAN), who's then determined to capture the dragon and make a name for himself in doing so. From that point on, Grace tries to do what's best for the boy, all while Pete and Elliott try to find each other and be reunited.

OUR TAKE: 6.5 out of 10
Who knows what the catalyst is for why and when movies are made. Okay, yes, it's usually all about the Benjamins (or whatever they'd call million dollar bills), but there's usually some direct catalyst that can be pointed to in addressing the "why now" question.

Considering the critical and box office success of 2010's family friendly "How to Train Your Dragon" (to the tune of just shy of half a billion dollars worldwide), it makes one wonder why it took another three years before Disney announced they were giving the reboot treatment to their old property "Pete's Dragon."

Given that the sequel to "HTTYD" did better than its predecessor the following year (by more than another $120 million) you can bet your bottom dollar that the powers that be at the Mouse House were chomping at the bit to get their 1977 live-action meets animated musical flick reconfigured for today's dragon happy audiences. And we now have that finished product not in its original form or even as a computer-animated flick like its DreamWorks' cinematic brethren. Instead, the new version of "Pete's Dragon" now arrives as a live-action flick that features a CGI dragon, a definite old school storytelling approach, and no musical numbers.

The result is somewhat of a throwback to how many such films were made in the 1980s, including by a fellow named Steven Spielberg who had a penchant for telling imaginative tales with fantastical creatures and child protagonists. While that legendary helmer was busy delivering the same again with "The BFG" earlier this summer, relatively unknown writer/director David Lowery ("Ain't Them Bodies Saints") and co-writer Toby Halbrooks were busy retooling the tale of an orphan and his sometimes invisible best friend, Elliott.

I'll honestly say I don't remember much about the original movie as it's been nearly 40 years since I last saw it. And in the pantheon of Disney classics (musical or not), it's not anywhere as beloved (or even known to some) as the studio's more recognizable hits. So I didn't start off with any sort of "they should have left this alone" mindset before sitting down for our press screening.

Interestingly enough -- and either a result of a lower budget or perhaps as a bit of homage to movies made thirty years ago -- I initially didn't view Elliott the dragon as a living and breathing creature. Granted, I obviously don't have any personal experience seeing one of these beasts firsthand and in the flesh, but something about the visual look didn't ring completely true to me. In short, the dragon looked somewhat fake and inserted into the live action footage rather than the real thing.

Thankfully, the personality given to the non-talking beast (part goofy dog, part best friend, part "adult" protector) and his interaction with the orphan boy (a good Oakes Fegley) in his care quickly dispelled any suspension of disbelief issues for yours truly.

After a brief prolog where the boy's parents are killed in a car accident (thankfully addressed in a sensitive and PG rating friendly manner), the kid and the dragon meet and become inseparable. As oft occurs in tales of this ilk, outside forces end up arriving on the scene and threaten to undermine that.

They're first seen as anonymous loggers involved in deforestation of the boy and dragon's heavily wooded home, and when the 10-year-old daughter (Oona Laurence) of the logging operator's owner (Wes Bentley) catches sight of what appears to be a feral boy, things go downhill from there. That's especially true when that owner's brother (Karl Urban, best known for playing Dr. McCoy in the newer "Star Trek" movies) decides he's going to escape the successful shadow of his sibling (who's also his boss) by capturing the beast, sort of like a modern day Carl Denham. In fact, there's a somewhat similar eventual shot of the enormous dragon being transported while chained, just like King Kong all those years ago.

But they never make it to the big city as the logger and his forest ranger girlfriend (Bryce Dallas Howard) intervene, with her father (Robert Redford) -- who's long regaled visiting youth about his encounter with the dragon decades earlier -- also stepping in to help. Despite pretty much accurately guessing how things would play out, I have to admit I got caught up in the proceedings as the inevitable rescue, escape, and chase sequence played out. I also like the fact that the filmmakers opted to set this film in a pre-Internet era with no social media present to blow this story up to national or global proportions.

It's a magical small tale with a big critter and a big heart, and it should touch -- to one degree or another -- anyone who's easy prey for "a kid and his pet" sorts of stories. Case in point was a woman next to me who was sobbing uncontrollably at the end (no worries, the dragon lives), while a young girl somewhere in the front of our theater was literally screaming bloody murder anytime the dragon had a gun pointed his way.

They obviously fell for the story as did I, and I imagine we won't be alone if enough people take the time to seek out this kid and family-friendly film. If you like 'em the way Disney used to make 'em, "Pete's Dragon" might just be the cat's meow, um, the bee's knees -- okay you get the point. The film rates as a 6.5 out of 10.

Reviewed August 8, 2016 / Posted August 12, 2016

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