“Pete’s Dragon” takes us back not to the 1977 film that loosely inspired it, but to the generation before that, when movies for kids were really for kids: aimed specifically at elementary and middle schoolers and following templates that help youngsters respond to the world while remaining hopeful. In a postmodern time of cynicism and apathy, those seem like rare and tender shoots in a city of gray skyscrapers.
The 2016 version has almost nothing in common with its predecessor, except for Pete and an animated dragon. It’s not a musical, although a few nondescript songs have been sprinkled onto the soundtrack as background music.
Director David Lowery, who wrote the script with Toby Halbrooks, moved the locale from New England to the Pacific Northwest and updated it from the 1900s to some time in the recent past, before cellphones and computers were part of daily life. Elliot, a dragon more imposing than goofy, no longer speaks.
In this telling, Pete (Oakes Fegley) survives the car crash that kills his parents and grows up a wild boy in the company of a beast that can make itself invisible. He’s happy doing his Mowgli thing, but civilization beckons in the form of park ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard).
She lives with mill owner Jack (Wes Bentley), whose daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) befriends Pete and helps him adjust to society. But Jack’s brother Gavin, who’s jealous of his sibling, decides to capture Elliot and get rich. The two kids and Grace’s dad (Robert Redford) intervene.
If the cast were less likeable, the predictability of the story might become wearisome. (Of course, it’s not likely to be predictable if you’re 9.) But all of the actors, especially young Fegley and Laurence, engage us, and even Karl Urban’s Gavin is more misguided than menacing. In this fantasy world, as in Dory’s aquatic one, there’s no room for real malice.
All elements, from bits of slapstick comedy to Grace’s maternal serenity, aim at youngsters; the language is pitched to them, and the film often takes place from their vantage points. (Notice how many shots come from Pete’s eye level.)
Elliot remains a triumph of computer animation, expressive and emotionally complex. He’s immediately appealing, with his chipped front fang and an apparent allergy that causes him to sneeze snot on humans.
Naturally, the stakes have been upped for 2016: He has to breathe a river of fire and pull off amazing feats. But he’s most poignant when imprisoned on Gavin’s flatbed truck, a reptilian iconoclast who wants merely to reunite with his best friend and be left alone to play. What child among us — or what grownup who was once a child — hasn’t known that feeling?
Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban, Oona Laurence, Robert Redford.
Director: David Lowery.
Screenwriters: David Lowery, Toby Halbrooks.
A Walt Disney Studios release. Running time: 103 minutes. Mild action peril. Playing at area theaters.