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Atmospheric 'Pete's Dragon' is a radical departure from the 1977 Disney original
Bryce Dallas Howard is Grace in Disney's Pete's Dragon," the adventure of a boy named Pete and his best friend Elliot, who just happens to be a dragon. - photo by Josh Terry
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, Petes 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 Petes 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 Petes 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 Petes 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 Petes cave. On another, an idealistic forest ranger named Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) has started to notice some peculiar goings-on in the forest. Shes 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.

Theres additional tension between Grace and Gavin beyond the logging issue, since Gavins brother Jack (Wes Bentley) who runs the company also happens to be Graces boyfriend.

It isnt long before Pete is discovered and carted off into town, and Gavin becomes obsessed with heading off into the forest to hunt the dragon. Theres 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 isnt mysterious in spite of the films marketing is Elliots look. We meet him right away in the movies 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, Petes 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, theres no reason to spend the extra money on 3-D here.)

Fegley does a nice job as Pete, and Elliots size makes it a bit easier for the cast to act convincingly against a CGI creature. Redfords 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 Petes 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 Petes 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.
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