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The subtly beautiful "Pete's Dragon" is a family drama that works because it doesn't talk down to children — the ones on the screen or the ones in the audience.

Essentially, it's the story of a little boy who is growing up and must give up his imaginary friend — even though this friend is not imaginary at all. The boy is Pete, played by newcomer Oakes Fegley, who's around 10 years old. It's hard to tell because he has lived on his own in the Oregon woods for six years.

"Nobody could survive out in that forest for six years. At least, not alone," says Meacham (Robert Redford), a wise old man from the nearby logging town of Millhaven who is the resident expert on the creature that legend says lives in those woods — a creature Meacham has long claimed to have seen as a boy.

His daughter, Grace (Bryce Dallas Howard), is the forest ranger in these parts, keeping tabs on the logging operation run by her fiancé, Jack (Wes Bentley), and Jack's brother Gavin (Karl Urban). Grace is the one who finds Pete and brings him back to civilization.

What Pete knows and what the audience learns early — well before everyone else in Millhaven — is that Pete isn't alone in the woods. He has a friend, Elliot, a playful dragon with green fur and massive wings. They are such good friends that Pete can jump off a cliff with abandon, knowing that Elliot will swoop in and catch him in midair.

Very few will remember the original "Pete's Dragon," a 1977 live-action/animated hybrid from the Disney studio's fallow period (between Walt's death in 1966 and "The Little Mermaid" in 1989). Here, director David Lowery and his writing partner Toby Halbrooks take only the bare bones of the original and structure a unique and wonderful movie around them.

Lowery's gift, as he showed in his 2013 indie crime drama, "Ain't Them Bodies Saints," is for tone, and he strikes a delicately balanced one in "Pete's Dragon." The way he shows the interplay between Pete and Elliot (beautifully rendered by Weta Digital) in the misty forest, often in a blue-green twilight, feels grounded and mystical.

The story has a fairy-tale simplicity, including the inevitable moment where Gavin turns into Gaston from "Beauty & the Beast," eager to hunt down the dragon. But Lowery knows simple doesn't mean stupid, and nothing feels dumbed down or gratuitously sugarcoated.

Fegley is a discovery, a child actor who appears completely guileless. He's well matched by Oona Laurence ("Bad Moms"), who plays Jack's daughter Natalie, the first kid to whom Pete connects. Howard shines as the movie's emotional center, playing well between the wild-child Pete and Grace's magic-seeking father. Redford brings a gravity to the proceedings, providing narration that's plain-spoken without being self-consciously folksy.

"Pete's Dragon" is, like Elliot, so rare and magical that it's hard to believe that it exists. But it does, and anyone who thinks Hollywood should make more like it should buy a ticket and take the ride.

Twitter: @moviecricket —


'Pete's Dragon'

A boy, living for years in the woods with a friendly dragon, learns about life among other people in this luminous remake of an old Disney title.

Where • Theater everywhere.

When • Opens Friday, Aug. 12.

Rating • PG for action, peril and brief language.

Running time • 104 minutes.