In both size and temperament, the creature reminds you heavily of Falkor, the albino luckdragon from The NeverEnding Story; its wordless faithfulness towards its young human friend, meanwhile, comes straight from The Black Stallion, and the purring rise and fall of its flank, as it dozes in a mossy hollow beneath an ancient tree – well, that’s pure My Neighbour Totoro.
Instead, the tone of Lowery’s film is melancholic and wistful – almost as if it’s commemorating a kind of childhood we all secretly know but don’t want to admit has already vanished.
It’s set in and around a small logging town in what’s presumably the United States’ Pacific Northwest – played here with beckoning storybook radiance by New Zealand’s Whakarewarewa redwood forest and Tapanui township – but the dates are left deliberately opaque.
Lowery’s previous film, the (significantly cheaper) crime romance Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, elevated a downbeat story flecked with blood and spit to the realms of fairy-tale – and he takes a similar approach here, making Pete’s tentative rediscovery of family life hum with a low-key, Spielbergian magic.
Howard is ideal as the surrogate mother, lighting up her scenes with a compassionate, autumnal glow – think of her as an earthling version of Jessica Chastain’s radiant Übermutter in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life– while Oona Laurence, a find in last year’s boxing drama Southpaw, is just as good as Natalie, the daughter of lumber mill owner Jack (Wes Bentley) who proves a faithful a friend-stroke-sister figure.