If there's a lesson to be learned from the plague of remakes, it's this: You're better off remaking a mediocre movie than remaking a good movie. Craig Brewer's 2011 remake of Footloose was a better movie than the 1984 original in all respects except one: It lacked Kevin Bacon.
Like Brewer, director David Lowery came from the indie scene, editing Shane Carruth's groundbreaking sci-fi film Upstream Color and scoring a Sundance hit with his 2013 Ain't Them Bodies Saints. His assignment from Disney was a remake of the not-very-fondly-recalled 1977 Pete's Dragon. The original was made during the dark times for the House of Mouse when the animation department was depleted and the studio was trying to coast along on low-budget, live-action kids films like Escape to Witch Mountain.
Pete's Dragon combined the animated dragon with live action Helen Reddy and Mickey Rooney, but since it was released the same year as Star Wars, it dazzled exactly no one. Instead of the goofy, slapstick dragon of 1977, Elliot the dragon looks more like a big, shaggy family dog than Smaug. His relationship with the orphan Pete (Oakes Fegley) is kind of like Room in the woods: content, but precarious. The feral Pete is discovered by Natalie (Oona Laurence), the daughter of lumber mill owner Jack (Wes Bentley), and forest ranger Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard) when a logging crew advances into the woods, putting Pete and his dragon in peril.
Unlike in The Jungle Book, it turns out to be a good idea to take out the songs from a former musical. Lowery plays the story like the kind of straightforward indie drama he cut his teeth on, and the result is something like E.T. in the Pacific Northwest, lens flares and all. The actors all fare reasonably well, with the most welcome presence being Robert Redford as Grace's father, Mr. Meacham, one of the few people to ever actually see the dragon before Pete came along. Redford is as effortless and comforting in the role as a cozy old quilt, encapsulating the tone that makes Pete's Dragon so agreeable.