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Plenty of magic - and life lessons - in these woods
PETE'S Dragon is the family-friendly tale of a little boy and his fire-breathing pet: a winged, furry green creature with the demeanour of a devoted puppy dog, an admirable intellect - but only so-so flying ability.
The film, a seamless blend of state-of-the art computer graphics and enhanced reality, is a reboot of a 1977 movie musical of the same name by Malcolm Marmorstein, representing all the things that Disney does best. The new version, directed by David Lowery and written by Lowery with Toby Halbrooks, comes complete with wholesome family values and appropriate messages about the beauty of nature and the simple power of imagination. The result is a film that comes close to being a Disney merchandiser's ultimate dream.
Deep in the heart of lumberjack territory in the Pacific Northwest, local residents have long heard rumours of a mythic beast living in the woods, but no one has ever seen it. Except Mr Meacham (Robert Redford), a grizzled woodcarver who delights in regaling (or scaring) children with stories of the so-called Millhaven Dragon.
His nature-loving daughter Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) is a park ranger who knows the woods like the back of her hand - but she has somehow missed running into Pete (Oakes Fegley), an 11-year-old resident of the forest whose parents were killed in a car accident six years ago. Lost and alone, he was saved from a pack of hungry wolves by a cave-dwelling dragon he calls Elliot and who has been his protector and playmate ever since.
Elliot has managed to avoid detection by humans, thanks to an ability to turn invisible - although the film makes it abundantly clear that the imagination is the most effective magical tool any boy can have. "If you go through life only seeing what's in front of you, you're going to miss out on a whole lot," says Mr Meacham.
Grace's boyfriend Jack (Wes Bentley) is the owner of a local lumber mill whose brother Gavin (Keith Urban) views the forest as a commercial opportunity and a place to hunt wild animals. When Jack's daughter Natalie (Oona Laurence) spots Pete (and friend), the game is finally up. Boy and pet are forcibly separated, Elliot is captured by Gavin and as usual, grown-ups get in the way - but they also help to resolve the situation.
Even as Pete learns to interact with other humans, the bond between him and Elliot remains unbreakable. They encounter a few obstacles along the way but there's magic in the woods if you know where to look - this being a Disney story, there's only one possible ending in store. Pete's Dragon is a well-crafted and charmingly told tale. Of all the lessons it preaches, perhaps the most important is that we're never too old to believe in magic - or dragons.