There's a lot that's unlikely about Pete's Dragon, the remake of the 1977 Disney film, particularly how good it is.
The original is no The Jungle Book or Alice in Wonderland when it comes to name recognition in the ever-growing list of Disney remakes. Even more unusual was hiring director David Lowery, whose last film was the Terrence Malick-esque crime tale Ain't Them Bodies Saints. (His contemporary Alex Ross Perry, writer-director of dark comedy Listen Up Philip, will be penning the new Winnie the Pooh. Go figure.)
Yet there's a case to be made that it's wiser to remake flawed or forgotten films than beloved properties, and the lyrical feel of Lowery's previous work is a strong fit for this material. Not only is Pete's Dragon probably the best of Disney's second go-rounds so far, it's the rare one that's actually better than the first — even if that's a fairly modest goal.
The movie opens with 5-year-old Pete (Oakes Fegley), who is on a family road trip when a car crash kills both his parents and leaves him stranded in the forest. But it isn't long before he befriends Elliott, a furry, friendly dragon that can also turn invisible.
The two live together happily in the wild for six years. Then one day, forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), lumber worker Jack (Wes Bentley) and daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) discover Pete in the woods and bring him into town.
Grace's father (Robert Redford) has been telling the tale of a dragon in the woods for years now, but it isn't until Pete claims to have survived thanks to the help of one that people start giving the idea a second thought. That includes Jack's brother Gavin (Karl Urban), who makes it his goal to capture the creature.
Pete's Dragon shares the same basic premise as the original, as well as several Disney trademarks. There's the feral child finding freedom in the wilderness of The Jungle Book, the dead parents of Bambi and the lovable animal pal of, well, pretty much all them.
But past that starting point, Lowery makes the material his own. The movie is less an adaptation of the earlier film and more a folk tale rendition, complete with folk artists like Leonard Cohen and Bonnie "Prince" Billy on the soundtrack.
Several scenes of characters walking in the woods are the closest one is likely to get to a nature trip at the multiplex. The movie is something of a shaggy dog hangout film, albeit one that literally features a shaggy dragon.
Even when it makes its way into a more traditional action-filled third act, it remains remarkably low-key. Gavin may be the most benign Disney "villain" ever — he has no evil plans and really no plans at all beyond catching the dragon.
If this makes the movie sound slow or uninvolving, what it really is instead is patient and trusting in its audience. Lowery's film shares something with Spielberg blockbusters beyond reaction shots of wide-eyed wonder.
In a summer of blockbusters that have been both deafening and disappointing, Pete's Dragon is a serene surprise success for Disney. Perhaps we can't yet discount the possibility of a great Bedknobs and Broomsticks remake.
Contact Jimmy Geurts at firstname.lastname@example.org.