Pete’s Dragon (Photo: Disney)

★★★ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY David Lowery
STARS Bryce Dallas Howard, Robert Redford

The new family feature Pete’s Dragon seems to hearken back to not one but two previous eras of cinematic wonder. The first, more obvious one is the late 1960s through the 70s, when the Walt Disney studio produced a series of winsome live-action pictures (GusCandleshoeThe Love Bug) even as its celebrated animation division hit upon hard times. The second is the mid-1990s, when studios (mainly Warner Bros.) weren’t afraid to release comparatively quiet and contemplative films for younger viewers (The Secret GardenA Little PrincessBlack Beauty). Pete’s Dragon feels like a throwback to both eras, and the fact that there was a version of this story produced in 1977 makes the connection even more tangible.

This remake of that clumsy live-action/animated hybrid is clearly an improvement, fashioning a sweet story about a young orphan boy (Oakes Fegley) who spends years in the woods with a big friendly dragon as his only companion. Once civilization comes calling, Pete finds friendship in the form of a forest ranger (Bryce Dallas Howard) while his fire-breathing companion finds danger in the form of a lumberjack (Karl Urban) who, in true King Kong fashion, plans to capture and profit from the creature.

Pete’s Dragon is the second movie this summer to focus on a child’s special relationship with an oversized creature, and it’s accomplished enough to make The BFG look even less of a BFD than it already did. The gentle nature and leisurely pace might cause a few Coked out kids to fidget, but most should react positively to the picture’s sense of adventure and discovery, while parents will be pleased to have found a family film that, for once, does the much abused genre proud. It’s just a shame that their children will still rather see Suicide Squad instead.

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