A big problem with children’s films today is that often they’re too noisy and brash and edited so frenetically you feel like you’re watching a video game. It’s comforting then to chance upon a film like Pete’s Dragon, remake of a Disney hit from the 70s, and a decidedly old-fashioned family movie steeped in magic and whimsy. Evidently made with a lot of affection for both its characters and its audience, the film tells a genuinely heartfelt story about a boy and his guardian dragon. It’s unmistakably evocative of ET: The Extra Terrestrial, and delivers all the awe and wonder of those early Spielberg gems.

The film opens with a tragedy that leaves a little boy named Pete alone and frightened in a forest. But he’s rescued and befriended by an enormous fur-covered, moss-green dragon, whom he names Elliott after the dog from his favorite storybook. Like Mowgli from The Jungle Book, Pete (Oakes Fegley) grows up in the woods away from humans, with his gentle-giant friend for company.
 
The dragon, a superbly rendered CGI creation, has a puppy-dog charm rather than ferocity. The best scenes are the ones between Pete and Elliot, who romp through the vast forest, splashing in the streams and soaring in the sky.
 
Of course it can’t last, and Pete is spotted by a well-meaning forest ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) who takes him back to civilization. There he meets her fiancé (Wes Bentley) whose brother (Karl Urban) sets out to capture Elliot for his own glory.
 
Not surprisingly the film addresses themes of family and friendship, and delivers a message about the destruction of nature. Through Robert Redford in the role of Grace’s father, who claims to have encountered the beast in his youth, the film also makes a case for opening one’s heart and mind to the possibility of encountering magic in our everyday lives.
 
None of this is particularly original or inventive. It’s just a simple story, but co-writer/director David Lowery knows how to tug at the heartstrings and reduce you to a puddle. Most refreshingly, he lets the film unfold at a pace that by today’s standards feels positively relaxed and unhurried. That approach serves the film well, giving the characters enough room to breathe.
 
Alternately funny, sad, and exciting, Pete’s Dragon leaves you feeling all warm and fuzzy in the end. Those of you that don’t have a pet will more than likely be pleading with your parents to let you get one. I’m going with three out of five.

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