It's never easy to remain unbiased when seeing a remake of a beloved movie from one's childhood but in this era of remake-happy studios continually dusting off familiar titles and hiring directors to give them a shiny new coat in the hopes of duplicating - oh, who am I kidding - triplicating the film's earlier success at the box office, it's become de rigeur to experience cinematic deja vu. Nowadays, however, the word "remake" has become as verboten as an NC-17 rating and has been replaced with less offensive labels such as "reimagining" or "reboot," the latter having a curiously dated connection to the malfunctioning Commodore 64s or Apple II computers of yore.
So once again Walt Disney Studios, purveyor of reimagined classics like THE JUNGLE BOOK and the upcoming BEAUTY AND THE BEAST has reached into their cavernous goldmine and pulled out PETE'S DRAGON, which was not quite a runaway smash back in 1977 but memorable enough to be given a 21st century makeover. Unlike the aforementioned animated movies, PETE'S DRAGON was a precursor to 1988's WHO FRAMED ROGER RABBIT in that live action characters interacted with an animated, and very lovable, green-scaled dragon named Elliot, who also possessed limited fire-breathing skills. Aren't all the central characters of Disney movies misfits in some manner?
In this new version, Elliot is a full-on CGI creation and an impressive one at that. Instead of the standard issue scaly dragon flesh, Elliot 2.0 is covered with green fur which is so finely detailed you wonder if the animators at Weta (the effect house that brought THE LORD OF THE RINGS to vibrant life) were intent on making their jobs even more grueling. Replacing the quaint seaside village of the original film is a mountain community where timber milling seems to be the main industry. The title character is once again a young boy who is tragically orphaned in the film's opening and becomes something of a Mowgli himself as he survives in the deep forest albeit with the help of Elliot who has become a surrogate caretaker for Pete.
It's only a matter of time before the bad adult characters get wise to both Pete and Elliot's hermetic existence and have to ruin all the fun although one of the town's residents Meachem (Robert Redford) has spent decades regaling neighborhood kids with his fantastic tale of coming face to face with a dragon bearing a strong resemblance to Pete's best friend and pet. Bryce Dallas Howard's nonbelieving park ranger Grace and Wes Bentley's stoic sawmill supervisor Jack play a married couple who take Pete in as an honorary member of their own family while Jack's brother Gavin (STAR TREK's Karl Urban) is a scheming mill worker who sees a wholly different kind of green after Elliot reveals himself during he and his coworkers' hunting party.
Besides flying and, yes, fire-breathing with confidence, Elliot can also camoflauge himself against most natural environments, making him invisible to his pursuers and extremely hard to catch. His large puppy-dog eyes somewhat resemble Falcore's from THE NEVERENDING STORY and though he can only make cute growling noises, Elliot seems to have no trouble understanding English.
The rest of the story is pretty much what is to be expected in a E.T.-esque type of movie but director David Lowery (AIN'T THEM BODIES SAINTS) keeps the Disney-fied trappings from feeling too much like a prepackaged product straight off the Hollywood assembly line and imbues the film with a sincere warmth and subtle sense of childhood wonder. None of the actors are at the top of their game, particularly Redford who can do this type of thing in his sleep, but it's Pete and Elliot's movie and together they make a fairly magical pair.
Note to the filmmakers: if you're going to fill a movie with wall-to-wall alt-acoustic songs, why not do a cover of "Candle On The Water," the sweetly stirring tune from the original PETE'S DRAGON that was actually nominated for the Best Song Oscar?