A live action family film with a little CGI magic woven in, Pete's Dragon is a breath of fresh air for kids who've grown up on a diet of Pixar and DreamWorks animations, and for parents who remember Spielberg's "old school" classics such as E.T.
Set in the 1980s, in a small town surrounded by woods, the story starts ominously. Five-year-old Pete is reading to his parents from the back seat of the car when an accident occurs leaving him stranded in the woods alone. Wolves gather around him and a dark shadow slowly crashes through the trees, terrifying those on-screen and in the audience.
Then something lovely happens; Pete's saviour shows his face and the tone immediately changes. Elliot, as Pete calls him, is a furry (as opposed to scaly) dragon with the kindest eyes you'll ever see, and he gently offers Pete his big paw for safety. As far as "meet-cutes" go, this one has us at "Are you going to eat me?"
Five years later Pete (Oakes Fegley) and Elliot, who has the power of invisibility, spend their days running and flying through the woods together. Though Elliot can't talk, their communication is clear, and Weta Workshop continues the charm offensive by giving Elliot at least as much personality as any other character - including being poor at landing and sneezing slime rather than breathing fire.
Their friendship is tested when Pete is "rescued" by young girl Natalie (Oona Laurence), and her stepmother to-be Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), who take Pete in while police try to identify him. The rest of the story involves the two best friends trying to find each other - Elliot possibly needing Pete more than Pete needs Elliot.
Howard is compassionate as Grace, and Robert Redford as warm as you'd expect playing a local artist who entertains kids with dragon stories. He gets a spring in his step when it comes to busting out a rescue mission - made necessary by the film's semi-baddie, a timber yard owner, played by local legend Karl Urban.
Pete's Dragon was shot in New Zealand and, though this may sound parochial, the setting of this film makes an important contribution. It's a gentle film that pauses to admire the natural world - there are the sweeping aerial shots of stunning countryside to keep Tourism New Zealand happy but, more than that, it's also happy to linger on beautifully lit trees, sunsets and owls.
The Otago town of Tapanui looks timeless, and as local kids ride their bikes down the main street it's easy to reminisce about your own childhood.
And that's what Pete's Dragon does well; it manages to be sentimental, genuine, and magical all at once. There's a humdinger of an action finale but for the most part, director David Lowery (Ain't Them Bodies Saints) doesn't bury the messages of friendship and belonging under big glossy visuals and a thundering soundtrack.
Rather, he's taken a quirky 1977 Disney film and remade it with understated grace and heart, and, to keep us on our toes, thrown in a left field soundtrack featuring the likes of Leonard Cohen and Bonnie "Prince" Billy. Works for me.
Cast: Bryce Dallas Howard, Oakes Fegley
Director: David Lowery
Running Time: 103 mins
Rating: PG (Low level violence)
Verdict: A special, heartfelt adventure for the whole family.