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Atmospheric 'Pete's Dragon' is a radical departure from the 1977 Disney original

Posted August 13

“PETE'S DRAGON” — 3 stars — Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford, Oakes Fegley, Oona Laurence, Wes Bentley, Karl Urban; PG (action, peril and brief language); in general release

2016 will be remembered for a lot of things, but on the big screen, you could call it The Year of the Feral Child. Starting with “The Jungle Book” and continuing with “The Legend of Tarzan,” “Pete’s Dragon” marks the third film since spring that tells or builds on the story of a young boy lost in the wilderness.

That may come as a surprise to those who remember the first “Pete’s Dragon” from 1977, which was set in early 20th century New England. The 2016 edition switches coasts, re-writes the story and ramps up the production quality. (The dragon is still green, though.)

The new “Pete’s Dragon” opens with a dark but discreet prologue. A married couple is killed in a tragic car crash while on vacation in the Pacific Northwest, and their young son is left alone in the wilderness with only a shadowy, furry figure to protect him.

Fast-forward six years, and “Pete’s Dragon” settles into its present storyline ("present" looking like somewhere around 1985, give or take). Pete (Oakes Fegley) is thriving in the forest with his super-sized dragon friend, who he calls “Elliot.” But his carefree lifestyle is about to be invaded on multiple fronts.

On one, a logging company led by an overzealous lumberjack named Gavin (Karl Urban) is cutting dangerously close to Elliot and Pete’s cave. On another, an idealistic forest ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) has started to notice some peculiar goings-on in the forest. She’s always been a grounded, “see it to believe it” type, contrary to her father Meacham (Robert Redford), who tells local kids about the time he came face to face with a huge green dragon in the forest long ago.

There’s additional tension between Grace and Gavin beyond the logging issue, since Gavin’s brother Jack (Wes Bentley) — who runs the company — also happens to be Grace’s boyfriend.

It isn’t long before Pete is discovered and carted off into town, and Gavin becomes obsessed with heading off into the forest to hunt the dragon. There’s plenty of action and suspense and twists and turns of the plot, but it all really centers around the question of where young Pete truly belongs.

Director David Lowery tells his story with a deliberate pace that maintains an air of mystery and enchantment, but the results might strain the attention span of younger viewers. One thing that isn’t mysterious — in spite of the film’s marketing — is Elliot’s look. We meet him right away in the movie’s prologue, but even though the dragon is often draped in shadow — the whole film is pretty dark in terms of its cinematography — there is little to no effort to hide Elliot from audiences.

Even though the heavy darkness might be a turn-off for some audiences, “Pete’s Dragon” is a beautiful film that makes the most of its setting. It also has a unique way of blending a real-world context with a character design that would seem more at home in a bright, Pixar-style world. (On a related note, there’s no reason to spend the extra money on 3-D here.)

Fegley does a nice job as Pete, and Elliot’s size makes it a bit easier for the cast to act convincingly against a CGI creature. Redford’s presence is also a welcome addition to the cast, and he almost feels like a living embodiment of the forest itself.

Even though the film is a dramatic departure from the 1977 original, there is a feeling that the new “Pete’s Dragon” is designed with nostalgic adults in mind as much as for its younger viewers. If “The Jungle Book” is aimed squarely at the little ones, and “Tarzan” is meant for grown-ups, then “Pete’s Dragon” splits the difference as a contemplative and beautiful movie with just enough action to keep things interesting.

“Pete's Dragon” is rated PG for action and peril and brief language; running time: 102 minutes.

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photographer who appeared weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" from 2013 to 2016. He also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at facebook.com/joshterryreviews.

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